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Online-only charter schools show dismal performance. What can be done?

Students who attend online charter schools – and receive no instruction from an in-person teacher – tend to do much worse than their peers in bricks-and-mortar schools, according to new research released last week.

Some students in online-only schools showed academic results in math that were the equivalent of what would be expected if a student skipped 180 days of school – virtually a full year’s worth of classes. In reading, the deficiency was the equivalent of 72 days of school.

Described as first-of-its-kind research, the analysis was conducted through a partnership between Mathematica Policy Research, Stanford University’s CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) and the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The report and companion policy papers are available online.

“Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” the report concluded.

The research, from a trio of well-respected organizations, could fuel a new wave of state policies aimed at improving these schools. In recent years, some states have moved to put limits on their growth and to change regulations to ensure better results.

The analysis compared typical online charter students with virtual “twins.” Students in online charter schools were paired with similarly situated peers who were taking similar classes that included some measure of in-person instruction. The research also incorporated surveys of online school operators and of state policies on online schools.

Programs that use blended learning, which is a mix of in-person and computer-aided instruction, and traditional schools that offer some online courses were not counted as “online” schools for the report. This allowed researchers to focus on schools where students only attend classes online. These programs have drawn scrutiny for lackluster results in previous research, too. The new report provides more information, including comparisons among states.

Nationally, 17 states and the District of Columbia permit online charter schools. The research found that, overall, online charters performed dismally. A few states had online schools that performed better than others; also, some students flourished in these schools.

Online-only schools tended to give teachers bigger workloads – assigning an average of 30 students per teacher as compared to 20 students per teacher in traditional public schools. Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica, said that a combination of lean staffing and limited teacher contact might be driving one of the biggest problems cited by the operators of online schools: a lack of student engagement.

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