The slick television commercials extolling the virtues of Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA), Oregon’s largest online public charter school, are popping up on local TV again. But don’t be fooled. ORCA, which draws in kids from across the state, is still failing its students and undermining Oregon’s commitment to a quality education for every child.
“Parents gave high marks for our academic rigor, program flexibility, the high quality of our teachers, and for delivering high levels of student achievement,” ORCA Principal Allison Galvin said in her most report to students and parents.
I don’t know why the parents are so thrilled. Perhaps intoxicated by ORCA’s technical, non-traditional approach, they overlook ORCA’s academic numbers, which have been getting worse in recent years, not better.
Or itmay be because the debate about online charter schools is more about people’s values than academic performance. To a lot of parents and students, online charters are really about independence, bonding with like-minded parents, having the option of choice, and escaping from what are perceived as stifling, monopolistic government bureaucracies.
Living in a cocoon of misinformation, they’re not interested in contrary data. And as neuroscientist Tali Sharot observed in her book, “The Influential Mind,” it’s hard to convince people with just data. When presented with hard evidence that contradicts their deeply held beliefs, people often work overtime to find reasons to defend those beliefs rather than modify them.
Charter schools in Oregon, including online charters, are publicly funded, so parents don’t pay tuition. Instead, the Oregon Department of Education distributes State School Fund money to each school district that sponsors a charter school.
ORCA’s sponsor is Santiam Canyon School District 129-J, which serves the communities of Mill City, Gates, Detroit and Idanha.
For the past three school years Oregon K-12 schools have assessed their performance in English Language Arts, Mathematics and Science.
ORCA’s numbers tell a dreadful story of failure, and it’s getting worse.
The numbers below show the declining percentage of ORCA students meeting the state’s standard for school and district accountability in every category over the past three school years.
English Language Arts
2014-15 61.3 %
ORCA officials have blamed the academic problems of their students on the fact that ORCA takes on many students who stumbled at their former traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.
But research reveals that it’s the struggling learners who are least likely to be well served by online coursework. In other words, while struggling students are the ones most in need of traditional in-person courses, they are often shuttled off to online schools, which is exactly what they don’t need.
Because they are public schools, online charters are required to meet the same diploma requirements as Oregon’s traditional brick-and-mortar Oregon public schools.
Graduation rates at all Oregon public schools, including online charters, are calculated the same way by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) as an “adjusted cohort graduation rate.” That rate is the percentage of all students who graduate from high school with a diploma within a four-year cohort period after they start 9th grade.
The graduation rate of all Oregon public schools in 2017 was 77 percent. ORCA’s graduation rate that year was just 64 percent.
Making things worse, the transfer of many struggling students to ORCA may, in a perverse sort of way, have helped the traditional public schools they came from. That’s because it removed academically challenged students from the rolls, improving graduation rates.
Encouraging struggling students to transfer from their brick-and-mortar school to an online school also can make their former schools appear more successful:
“When low achieving students leave, for instance, average school test scores increase,” concluded a report rom the California Legislative Analysts’ Office raising concerns about alternative schools. “This gives the appearance that the school is improving, and it allows the school to focus on the education needs of the more motivated students that remain. In addition, when students marked as ‘problems’ or ‘trouble makers’ drop out, they relieve educators of administrative headaches. As a result, inattention to the needs of these types of students can actually make schools appear more successful.”
Research suggests this is a national problem.
“School officials nationwide dodge accountability ratings by steering low achievers to alternative programs,” ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, reported in February 2017.
If education is a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves public, Chester Finn Jr., President Emeritus at the Fordham Institute said in June 2017.
Oregon’s governor and legislators should recognize their compelling interest in taking ORCA and other failing online public schools to task.