With conventional schools shut down because of COVID-19, school officials are scrambling to provide students with education services through the use of online-learning tools. However, some types of schools are having greater success in transitioning to online education, and often those schools are charter schools.
First, it is noteworthy that the California Department of Education, in its recent guidance on distance learning, cites just one example of an in-state school successfully using an online-learning model—Westlake Charter School in Sacramento.
According to the CDE, Westlake Charter used Google Sites and then “built a simple website to house all teacher resources; the [school’s] team crafted a distance learning manual which was posted to the site; feedback forms were crafted and FAQ pages were launched; and access was created to the delivery sites where teachers would eventually deliver content.”
Next, Westlake built a distance-learning website for families to visit, which included separate pages based on grade level and subject matter. Each page is organized into days of the week.
In terms of the actual instruction at Westlake, the CDE says students will engage in lessons “delivered digitally by their own classroom teacher.” Further, online learning resources will be “offered to extend learning beyond these structured lessons using a variety of online curriculum.”
All lessons at Westlake are being delivered through Google Classroom, incorporating videos of the teachers speaking and reading directly to students, as well as curating a wide variety of learning resources. The Google classrooms are organized on Google sites and shared with families, which structure daily learning for each grade level.
Importantly, Westlake addressed equity concerns by surveying families about their technological needs in order to provide assistance to those families needing a device and access to the Internet.
Westlake Charter is no anomaly. Many charter schools are pivoting to online education quicker and more successfully than regular public schools.
A new analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell compared the pivot to online learning at 18 charter school management organizations, which run networks of charter schools, and 82 public school districts across the country.
Of the 18 charter networks, 14 reported that they were distributing devices to students, which allows the networks “to expect more from students and families in their remote learning plans.”
Among the charter networks, the analysis found “rapid leaps from the classroom to the cloud,” while such practices “remain somewhat rare” in the 82 school districts.
Specifically, “Several charter school networks we reviewed have quickly rolled out plans that include synchronous instruction — meaning they bring groups of students together virtually to receive instruction at the same time — as well as tracking students’ attendance and grading their work.”
Also, “Compared with the districts we have examined, the charter school networks were far more likely to monitor student progress,” and they did this by “holding frequent one-on-one check-ins between students and adults, assigning and grading student work, and using digital platforms that enable real-time monitoring and attendance tracking, such as Google Classrooms, Microsoft Teams and Canvas.”
The charter networks were also very nimble at “flexing teacher roles to serve students remotely.”
The analysis cited New York City’s Success Academy, where one teacher leads synchronous virtual class time, while other teachers review students’ work as the class proceeds, grade assignments and make daily check-in calls to students. “This way,” notes the analysis, “teachers can maintain strong touch points with their students while providing quality instruction.”
The analysis’ authors point out that the COVID-19 crisis’ “unprecedented disruption to learning will require unprecedented solutions” and that the innovative efforts of the charter networks “can inform efforts in other schools.”
Yet, while many charter schools are leading the way in meeting the challenge of distance learning, powerful teacher unions, such as the United Teachers of Los Angeles, have used the COVID-19 crisis to try and torpedo charter schools.
The unions, however, miscalculate the feelings of the American people. At this critical juncture, Americans want solutions that will help everyone and they reject special-interest agendas that will benefit only a few.
The current crisis is acquainting parents and their children with new and revolutionary modes of learning, which will disrupt the regular-public-school status quo. American education is not likely to be the same again.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.