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New Research Tracks Charters’ Early Moves During Pandemic

By Kevin Mahnken | February 15, 2022

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A new study suggests that charter schools heavily prioritized student engagement and instruction in the early days of the pandemic, with many navigating a quick transition to online learning and beginning to embrace a hybrid model by the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. This facile response, especially in comparison with traditional public schools, owes much to the organizational flexibility afforded to schools of choice, researchers argued. 

The paper was released this morning by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), a research organization at Stanford University that examines education reform and school effectiveness. Its prior releases have often shown the academic performance of charter schools comparing favorably against traditional public schools.

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In a call with reporters, Macke Raymond, CREDO’s director and a distinguished senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, called the findings “a remarkable case study of what happens when schools are in this kind of operating framework.” 

“It makes me wonder what would happen if we gave that opportunity to other public schools,” Raymond added.

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The study is a continuation of earlier work that focused exclusively on remote learning in New York charter schools during the first few months of the pandemic. In this paper, survey data from New York charters was combined with that of two other states, California and Washington State. In all, CREDO sent questionnaires to over 1,700 charters in all three states; they received 524 responses from schools enrolling roughly 225,000 students. All of Washington’s 13 charter schools responded to the survey, while 21 percent of California’s and 64 percent of New York’s did the same.

The polling delved into the specifics of each school’s reaction to the emergence of COVID-19 and resultant switch to remote learning, first between March and June of 2020, then during the 2020-21 school year. The questions touched on how long it took for schools to complete that switch, how they altered instruction, how learning modes changed over time, and what kind of training they provided to employees during the pandemic’s first year.

At that time, charter leaders reported focusing overwhelmingly on how to keep delivering instruction and maintaining contact with families. Measuring priorities among respondents, the study showed that 86 percent listed the transition to digital learning as “very urgent”; 81 percent said that establishing connections with families was very urgent, and 78 percent said the same of maintaining student engagement. By comparison, a smaller group characterized the provision of meals (55 percent), developing protocols for positive cases (37 percent), or ensuring student housing (35 percent) as very urgent.

The drive to move online was reflected in the speed with which charter schools got up and running after state-mandated closures began. On average, charter leaders reported an interval of just 3.5 days between closing their physical campuses and reopening for online instruction. California charters took an average of four days to manage this transition, while those in Washington said they accomplished it in just two. By contrast, at least one contemporaneous account held that less than 40 percent of teachers in district schools were in daily contact with their students by the end of that March.

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The relatively shorter transition time for charters was previously noted in a July 2020 report from Tulane University’s National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice. The slight lag displayed by traditional public schools was one the few differences between traditional public, private, and charter schools in that research. 

Raymond described the swiftness of charters as “amazingly different” than what was occurring in district schools at the same time. “What we’re looking at here is literally hundreds of schools all doing the same thing,” she said. “They’re all getting a plan, getting into motion, and doing it quickly.”

Charters responding to the CREDO survey also reported moving gradually to a hybrid learning model throughout the 2021 school year. While roughly 80 percent of respondents said they were operating in fully remote status in April 2020, only about 50 percent were still fully remote by February 2021. The other half had moved to a hybrid model by that time.

Somewhat disturbingly, a sizable number of survey participants said they were forced to change academic classes during the initial months of the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, 12 percent said they had dropped courses entirely, but that number jumped to 22 percent during the following school year. During 2020-21, 18 percent of respondents said they had altered high school graduation requirements, 40 percent said they had modified promotion requirements between grades, and 55 percent said they had reduced course content overall.

Changes to academic content also made their impact on learning time. Some 60 percent of charter leaders surveyed said they had reduced the length of their school day relative to the year that preceded the pandemic. Around 15 percent reported extending the school days, while over 30 percent said they had made “other calendar changes,” including moving back the start of the school year, shortening vacations, or moving to a year-round schedule.

With few exceptions, charters additionally offered help to their teachers while negotiating the sudden switch to Zoom classrooms. In total, 97 percent of survey participants reportedly provided professional development to staff related explicitly to online learning, the report found. By comparison, a September 2020 report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that most district reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year made no public commitment to increasing time for professional development.

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This freedom to tinker with the structure and delivery of academic content was attributable to what Raymond described as the fundamental nature of the “charter bargain”: Schools of choice are afforded more flexibility than their more traditional counterparts, and so are continually adapting throughout their existence. Once the pandemic began, she argued, they were amply prepared to roll with its uncertainties.

“When we kept pulling back from the data and seeing the patterns, what appears so surprising to us is that across different political contexts, different authorizing environments, different financial situations, what you have here is this practically universal response from the charter schools: Extremely fast, extremely focused on maintaining instruction, making tough trade-offs, mobilizing networks, getting all hands on deck as quickly as possible.”

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