National study: Students fall behind a year in math in online charter schools

A few years back, the state Legislature, enthralled by what seemed the endless possibilities of virtual education, considered a bill that would have mandated every high school student in Georgia complete at least one course online.

At the time, cyber learning was being heralded as an innovative solution to teach disengaged students at a lower cost than brick and mortar schools.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

A series of studies have found limits to the effectiveness of online education, saying it works best yoked to classroom instruction, and for a limited band of students, the motivated and disciplined.

The latest and most devastating set of reservations about virtual learning comes from the first national study of academic attainment in the nation's public online charter schools. Conducted by three independent research groups, the National Study of Online Charter Schools was funded by a strong advocate of charter schools, the Walton Family Foundation.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes or CREDO at Stanford University, the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and Mathematica Policy Research looked at students in 158 virtual schools in 17 states including Georgia. The students took all their classes online. Most of these schools were run by private providers rather than school districts.

The findings were chilling. In math, students were 180 days – an entire school year – behind peers in traditional public schools. In reading, they were 72 days behind. Overall, 88 percent of online charters posted lower math growth than comparable standard public schools.

A bright spot for Georgia: Online charter students here and in Wisconsin showed reading gains higher than peers in traditional public schools.  The CREDO study noted, "These findings show it is possible for online charter schools to produce stronger growth, but it is not the common outcome."

The dismal national math finding led project director Margaret Raymond to tell the Washington Post : "There's still some possibility that there's positive learning, but it's so statistically significantly different from the average, it is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year."

In response to the findings that online charter school students had such lower academic performance, charter operators have been critical of the project methods.

But Walton welcomed the results. “We support research on difficult questions like these because we want to know what is working for kids — and what is not. Innovation in education takes time, but we must test whether new ideas are working and make changes when we learn that ideas with potential are falling short,” said the director of research and evaluation for the Walton Family Foundation, Marc Holley. “We’re grateful that CRPE, Mathematica, and CREDO have studied these schools and are sharing their findings. Knowing the facts helps parents, educators, policymakers, and funders make smarter, more informed decisions that benefit children.”

Cyber classes still seem to work best for the first generation of virtual learners: the ambitious and determined teens who sought out online options to take the honors and AP courses their brick-and-mortar schools didn't offer. These are school-proof students who thrive in any learning environment and are highly self-directed.

In the wake of the findings from the Walton-funded project, Georgia ought to look at its online charter schools. We need to know which are failing and which are succeeding. Expand the successful ones and close the failures where kids lose an entire year of math. While many folks on this blog blast traditional public schools, the learning loss in low-performing brick and mortar schools is typically described in weeks, not years.

Here are some of the official findings:

Conducted by three independent research institutions, the study is the most comprehensive examination of online charter schools to date, and is organized into separate, topical report volumes.

Mathematica’s report offers a snapshot of the 200 online charter schools operating across the country and the 200,000 elementary, middle, and high school students they serve. The report 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. Mathematica’s analysis finds:

-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 Brian Gill, a Mathematica senior fellow and lead author of the report, said, “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.”

The Center on Reinventing Public Education conducted an extensive examination of how state policy shapes 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.”

The CREDO at Stanford University report presents the most comprehensive findings available to date about 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.