Research Update: Preliminary Thoughts about Traditional Public School District Responses to Cyber Charter Schools

I have been out in the field during the last few weeks conducting interviews with school district administrators about how they perceive the online learning movement within public schools across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I haven’t fully analyzed the data yet, but I am definitely encountering interesting findings.

One major finding is that traditional public schools have “responded” (quotes because I don’t like the causal link here yet, and I am digging into this word a bit in my research) to the cyber charter movement in a few ways. One way is to create an online school in their own district, another is to join a coalition of traditional public schools creating an online school for these coalition members, a third is to ignore the movement completely, and a fourth is not to make online schools and convince their students that enrolling in the online movement is a bad idea (including giving them financial incentives to stay in district!).

Another interesting note is that, as institutional theorists often predict, the developments of these online schools have not come through a rational model where school districts take part in online learning because they think this model will yield a higher quality of academic outcomes for their students. That is not to say that decisions of individual actors are irrational because they are not; however, a major underpinning of the charter movement is that competition will cause rational responses to market forces that will in turn increase student achievement. Leaders respond to forces, but I think it is a stretch to say that competitive market forces have absolutely improved schooling outcomes on the aggregate.

Examples to reflect some of the statements I just made include some administrators creating have used fulltime online learning even though they think this type of learning is not the best option for their students (they create the schools for reasons such as resource dependency instead of improving academic outcomes), no clear data have shown me that the districts losing the most percentage of their students have been the first ones to embrace the online movement, and leaders have used online schooling for different purposes that fit the needs of the traditional brick and mortar school rather than for competitive purposes (such as putting expelled students in these schools so they don’t disrupt the traditional setting).

It seems like cyber charter schools have introduced the tool of online learning to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. How this tool gets used and if it is even used appropriately across the different types of schooling providers (charter or traditional public) is not yet clear to me. One thing that is clear, though, is that online schooling has been something on the minds of leaders across the Commonwealth. Though, how they use, value, and talk about this tool might not be how advocates of online schooling have predicted.

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