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Do online charter schools measure up?

A three-part research study indicates that online charter school performance may be underwhelming

online-charter-schoolsNew research offers evidence that online charter schools post weaker academic performance and struggle more to maintain student engagement than their conventional brick-and-mortar peers.

The National Study of Online Charter Schools, released Oct. 27, analyzed online charter school operations, policy environments, and their impacts on student achievements.

The three-volume study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, describes the achievement effects of online charter schools.

Volume 1 analyzed the 200 online charter schools in operation in the U.S. and the 200,000 K-12 students in attendance. It examines the instructional programs of online charter schools; methods used to engage students and parents, along with expectations of parental involvement; the teachers and principals of online charter schools; and the schools’ management and governance.

That analysis found:
• Student–driven, independent study is the dominant mode of learning in online charter schools, with 33 percent of online charter schools offering only self-paced instruction
• Online charter schools typically provide students with less live teacher contact time in a week than students in conventional schools have in a day
•Maintaining student engagement in this environment of limited student-teacher interaction is considered the greatest challenge by far, identified by online charter school principals nearly three times as often as any other challenge
• Online charter schools place significant expectations on parents, perhaps to compensate for
limited student-teacher interaction, with 43, 56, and 78 percent of online charters at the high school, middle, and elementary grade levels, respectively, expecting parents to actively participate in student instruction

“Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction, and they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time, which the data reveal are typical of online charter schools nationwide. These findings suggest reason for concern about whether the sector is likely to be effective in promoting student achievement,” said Brian Gill, a Mathematica senior fellow and lead author of the report.

In Volume II, the Center on Reinventing Public Education examined how state policy impacts the online charter school landscape. Researchers found that online charter schools exist in a number of different policy environments due to variation in state charter law and administrative regulation.

Most of the existing regulation is reactive to controversy (restrictions on growth and autonomy), rather than proactive policies to guide the unique opportunities and challenges of online charters.

The authors found several drawbacks to forcing online schools into the charter context, including:
• Open admission requirements that prevent schools from screening for students who are most
likely to be successful in an online school.
• Authorizing and accountability provisions that are not well suited to the unique challenges of
regulating online schools.
• Funding mechanisms that preclude outcomes-based funding

CRPE director Robin Lake, who co-authored the study, said, “We need policies that address legitimate
concerns without needlessly restricting growth.” The report recommends that policymakers consider
moving online schools out of the charter context, or craft unique provisions specific to online charters.”

Volume III, from the CREDO at Stanford University, examines impacts of online charter enrollment on the academic progress of students.

While findings vary for each student, the results in CREDO’s report show that the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers.

To conceptualize this shortfall, it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year. This pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.

“While the overall findings of our analysis are somber, we do believe the information will serve as the foundation for constructive discussions on the role of online schools in the K-12 sector. We see an
opportunity for the providers to do a better job of documenting the benefits they provide to their
students and to connect with and learn from operators who are doing well,” said Dr. James Woodworth, Senior Quantitative Research Analyst for CREDO at Stanford University.

This mixed-method analysis included data from 158 online schools across 17 states and the District of
Columbia. The data set for online school students is restricted to those students attending public, full-time online charter schools.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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