Report: Online Charter Schools Lagging in Student Achievement

Published December 30, 2015

A report released in October indicates online charter schools need greater monitoring for quality.

Mathematic Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) collaborated on the “National Study of Online Charter Schools” to analyze the operations, policy environments, and student achievement impact of online charter schools across the nation.

According to the report, students in online charter schools significantly underperform when compared to their traditional public school peers. Online charter school students were found to be 72 days behind their peers in reading and 180 days, which amounts to an entire school year, in math.

“I think we had a sense, given the state accountability data, … that there were some problems in terms of performance,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “But we were alarmed by the results.”

Determining Achievement

There are approximately 200 online charter schools in the nation, and the sector is experiencing rapid growth. The Walton Family Foundation commissioned the study to explore the “strength of this educational option,” said Marc J. Holley, Walton Family Foundation evaluation unit director.

“We know that some students thrive in this setting, but the limited prior rigorous research on the topic certainly raised serious questions that needed further investigation,” Holley said. “We are very disappointed by the results and are calling on policymakers and operators to take strong measure to remedy the poor performance.”

“The three organizations were complementary in skills and took on different pieces,” said Robin Lake, CRPE director and coauthor of the report. “CREDO led the study of academic impact. Mathematica surveyed schools about their practices. CRPE studied the policy environment. We tried to pull all of these pieces together to get better insight into what the numbers showed.”

State Frameworks, Parent Guidance

The report found most states had low student achievement in online charter schools.

States should revisit their policy frameworks and address enrollment, attendance, funding, authorization processes, and personnel, Ziebarth says.

“Small district authorizers may not have the capacity to oversee [an online charter school],” Ziebarth said. “Maybe some of these schools should not be charters due to open-enrollment requirements. Maybe they need to redefine these schools with better enrollment criteria, screening for such a unique environment.”

Mathematica’s survey found teachers and students at online charter schools have live interaction as a “classroom” only three to six hours per week, significantly less than traditional brick-and-mortar students do. As a result, the study found parents of students in online charters need to step in and guide a student’s educational experience.

Improve, Don’t Eliminate Options

“I think states are likely to continue to make the pathway available but significantly more regulated,” Ziebarth said.

“Thirty to 40 percent of kids are faring better in this environment,” Ziebarth said. “So it does work for some families.”

The best way to ensure full-time online education is available to those families who want it and can succeed in it is to require improvement, not eliminate options, Ziebarth says.

“I do think there’s need for more regulation, but it has to be thoughtful and careful,” Lake said. “We don’t want to close down the opportunity for publicly funded online instruction. We want to make sure it’s high quality and that kids can really benefit from it.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

Image by Brad Flickinger. 

Internet Info

“National Study of Online Charter Schools,” Mathematic Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, October 27, 2015: