The Atlanta Post
By: Weintana Abraha
November 22, 2010
The one commonality educators have regarding online schools, particularly cyber charter schools, is a passionate opinion about their contribution to American education. The politics and turf war between traditional (also known as brick-and-mortar) and online schools have made it difficult to collect public, non-partisan data on virtual charter schools and online education in general.
Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools; of the nearly 5000 charter schools across the country, 217 are virtual or cyber charter schools. Additionally, there are hundreds of private and university-run online high schools along with a growing number of brick-and-mortar schools adding online components to their teaching.
Critics' have two primary complaints: that it is difficult, if not impossible, for virtual schools to provide quality education. An Arizona State University study of virtual schools critiqued Knowledge Universe, a conglomerate of online schools. "The curriculum is not interesting and it promotes a one-size-fits-all approach. The instruction is mechanical and the system does not encourage creativity." Advocates counter that cyber charter education is the solution for students who are under-stimulated, overlooked, or face disciplinary and/or health issues that traditional schools are ill equipped to deal with. "We get both ends of it: kids who have failed out and kids pursuing careers while going to high school." says Fred Miller, a communications coordinator with the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Moriah Conant, a PCCS sophomore agrees. "I like charter in general because they offer flexibility and it's a great opportunity to have a good education and still do other things like ballet or professional sports."
Additionally, cyber schools must meet the same standards as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. "All the [cyber charter] schools have to take the standardized PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) tests and meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind Act," explains Miller. "If you don't make AYP, you're labeled a failing school." Accredited non-charter schools online must have profiles with education watchdog groups in their region.
Another charge against charter and cyber charter education is that they drain essential funding away from public school districts. In a recent Kansas City Star article, Pennsylvania's Auditor General, Jack Wagner--a one-time proponent of charter schools--discussed plans to halt new funding for charter and cyber charter education, citing the schools as a hurdle to efficient public school spending. Wagner said, " I cannot turn a blind eye to the inefficiencies in the way charter and cyber-charter schools are funded in Pennsylvania." But according to the Center for Education Reform's website, cyber charter (and charter) schools often receive 66-75% of state funding per student versus public school districts.
Online educators, however, say that they are providing the best possible educational experiences for students who are often overlooked in mainstream public schools-minorities, children in poorer urban and rural communities, and special needs students. Resources include textbooks (or digital texts in some cases) as well as school-provided computer and Internet for every student. Online school communities even work at building non-computer social ties: "One of the myths about cyber is that they don't get enough socialization. They get plenty of socialization," says Miller. "One of the trends we've fostered in the last few years is more face-to-face stuff: regional offices where tutoring is offered; field trips all year; we have a department called FamilyLink that set up trips, outings with families to get together to see each other."
Many students even continue friendships with students outside the online education community. Says Conant, "I do have friends from church who go to brick-and-mortar schools."
But is the moderate amount of social interaction enough to assuage the concerns? "Already, we have too many kids who lack appropriate social skills when they reach school age, and the problem generally only worsens as they get older," says Corinne Gregory, president and founder of SocialSmarts, a nationally recognized program for teaching social skills. "We know that too much "screen time" isn't good for kids; now we expect them to do the majority of their educational activities online?"
Gregory believes that even the small interaction provided by cyber schools does not address the needs of developing teenagers. "Even the best technology is no good substitute for in-person interaction," she said. "Giving someone your attention, looking them in the eyes, speaking to them instead of away, learning how to take turns, communication, and sharing ideas and cooperating -- all these things are difficult to "simulate" online, and it is still, at best, just a 'simulation.'"
Dr. Wendy H. Weiner agrees. As a principal of a small high school in South Florida, she said that her school had to discontinue an online program they had for students, which occupied half of the school day, after seeing the day-to-day struggles of the students during the two year duration of the program. "I had found that students need to see the face-to-face reactions of working with peers and the teacher," she said. " The other issue is that the intonation of what is written over the internet is not necessarily what was meant by the author."
The ultimate question on this debate remains: what is best for students and for public education as a whole?
It seems that these alternative institutions can claim some amount of success. Pennsylvania Cyber Charter's average ACT and SAT scores (22.4 and 1515, respectively) are higher than both the state and national averages (21.9 & 1473 for Pennsylvania; 21 & 1509 for the country). Seventy percent of PA Cyber Charter students matriculate to a 2 or 4-year college.
If more online educational institutions follow the cyber model, it will continue to fuel the never-ending debate on the state of education. Certainly, more attention must be paid to this new movement to ensure it fulfills its promise to public school students, particularly the ones on the fringe. And though opinions of online schools between elation, skepticism, and downright anger, there is no doubt that virtual education which will not easily or quietly go away anytime soon.