Study: Online Charter Schools Not Making the Grade

On October 27, the findings of a new study were released, revealing that students attending online charter schools perform worse than their peers in traditional brick-and-mortar schools. This trend is consistent across various demographic groups, different methodologies, and the majority of states. Greg Richmond, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, expressed his concern over these results, stating that while virtual schooling has its place, the outcomes shown in the report are unacceptable.

The report concludes that academic benefits from online charter schools are the exception rather than the rule. Online charter schools, which deliver the majority of their instruction via computer over the internet, are a topic of controversy. Supporters argue that they promote innovation in education and cater to at-risk students, while skeptics highlight the fact that two-thirds of these schools are operated by for-profit organizations, and previous research has consistently shown poor academic performance.

The study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), was accompanied by reports from the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Mathematica Policy Research. CREDO, based at Stanford University, has a history of producing influential studies on charter school effectiveness.

The CREDO research compares the impact of attending online charter schools versus traditional public schools. To do this, researchers match students attending online charters with demographically similar students who attend traditional public schools and have similar prior levels of achievement. By comparing the academic growth between these two groups, the study found significant negative effects on both math and reading scores for students in online charter schools.

While the results of this study are concerning, it is important to note that CREDO’s methodology has its limitations. One challenge for charter school studies is the potential for selection bias, as students who choose to attend charter schools may differ from those who remain in traditional public schools. However, CREDO attempts to address this by controlling for demographic factors and prior achievement. Nevertheless, it is possible that there are other differences between students in online charter schools and traditional public schools that were not captured in the data.

These findings have led to disappointment among charter advocates, who are now calling for reforms. Nina Rees, of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, acknowledges that while online schooling may work for some students, the CREDO report highlights the fact that many are not succeeding in this environment. Rees emphasizes the need for stronger oversight from charter authorizers and suggests awarding grant money based on school performance.

In conclusion, the study’s results reveal the underperformance of online charter schools compared to traditional schools, sparking calls for action and reform within the charter school sector. It is important to recognize the limitations of this study’s methodology, but the findings raise valid concerns about the effectiveness of online charter schools.

These findings follow a study that discovered a negative impact on student learning from online instruction at the university level.

CREDO solely focuses on academic achievement in math and reading, neglecting other factors of school quality that families and students may prioritize. Furthermore, the study cannot determine if a student would have dropped out of school if they were not enrolled in an online charter program.

K12 Inc, the largest operator of online schools in the country, criticized the study for relying on outdated data from 2012. They also argue that the methodology used in the study does not allow for fair comparisons, as it fails to account for differences between students who transfer to online charter schools and those who remain in traditional schools.

In response, K12 stated, "We are aware of the academic challenges that online charter schools face, and we have implemented significant measures in the past two years to address these challenges. However, these efforts are not reflected in this study."

The Mathematica report primarily focuses on specific aspects of online charters, which have seen substantial growth in recent years. It highlights the fact that online charters have a significantly higher number of white students and fewer Hispanic students and English-language learners compared to traditional public schools. Principals of online charters often cite "student engagement" as their biggest challenge.

Brian Gill, a coauthor of the report, explains, "Maintaining student engagement is inherently challenging in online instruction, and it is made worse by the high student-teacher ratios and limited contact time between students and teachers, which our data shows is typical across online charter schools nationwide."

The CRPE research examines the policy environment surrounding online charters and finds that three states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California – account for 50% of all students enrolled in online charter schools.

These states have generally supported unrestricted initial growth in the online charter sector and provide relatively high per-pupil funding. This may be due to strong lobbying efforts by online charter networks, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The authors of the report state, "Since online charter schools often have ties to for-profit organizations, they tend to have powerful lobbyists who influence legislation and oppose additional regulations." However, the report also notes that some states have recently made efforts to limit the growth of online charters and increase oversight.

Stay updated with stories like these by signing up for Newsletter and have them delivered straight to your inbox.


  • marcosnguyen

    Marcos Nguyen is a 29-year-old blogger and teacher from Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, where he studied education and psychology. Marcos has been blogging since 2009, and he specializes in writing about education and parenting. He currently teaches middle school social studies and language arts.