Classroom Technology

Cybercharter Students Fall Far Behind on Academic Measures, New Study Says

By Benjamin Herold — November 03, 2015 6 min read

Students who take classes over the Internet through online charter schools make dramatically less academic progress than their counterparts in traditional schools, according to a sweeping new series of reports released last week.

How stark are the findings?

Statistically speaking, the gains that online charter students saw in math were so limited, it was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year,” said Margaret Raymond, the director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.

Prepared by CREDO, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, and Mathematica Policy Research, the three-part National Study of Online Charter Schools represents the first comprehensive national look at the roughly 200 schools in the publicly funded, independently managed cybercharter sector. Such schools enroll about 200,000 full-time students across 26 states.

More than two-thirds of online charters were found to have weaker overall academic growth than similar brick-and-mortar schools. As a group, the schools were characterized by high student-to-teacher ratios, low student engagement, and high student mobility. They also offered students limited opportunities for live contact with teachers. From funding to enrollment to oversight, states are failing to keep up with the unique policy challenges that online charters present, the researchers contended.

Highest Cybercharter Enrollments

Some 200,000 students nationwide are enrolled in full-time online charter schools. Among the 26 states where such schools operate, these 10 have the most students enrolled.


SOURCE: Mathematica Policy Research.

Only in Georgia and Wisconsin did online charter schools show more promising results. Online charters in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas had the worst results, in both reading and math.

The findings “leave little doubt attending an online charter school leads to lessened academic growth for the average student,” wrote the researchers from CREDO.

In response, the country’s largest for-profit operator of online charter schools criticized the studies as based on outdated data and a questionable methodology.

National groups representing charters and online-learning proponents, meanwhile, described the results as alarming and troubling.

“There is a place for virtual schooling in our nation, but there is no place for results like these,” said Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in a statement.

Rapidly Growing Sector

Despite being a relatively recent phenomenon, full-time online charter schools now enroll about 8 percent of charter students nationwide, according to CRPE, a think tank affiliated with the University of Washington.

Overall, white students (71 percent of total enrollment) are overrepresented in online charters, while Hispanic students (12 percent) and English-language learners (0.4 percent) are underrepresented, according to Mathematica, which conducted a survey of 127 online charter principals for its study.

The Mathematica researchers found student-to-teacher ratios that averaged about 30-to-1 in online charters, compared with 20-to-1 for brick-and-mortar charters and 17-to-1 for traditional public schools. Other support staff were also scarce: Most of the online charters surveyed did not use tutors, teaching aides, or instructional assistants and had only one guidance counselor.

Weak Academic Gains

Because online charter students learn over the Internet, often via self-paced courses, proponents have questioned the relevance of such figures.

They have also pointed to online charters’ use of “synchronous” technologies, ranging from phone calls to Web conferencing, as a strategy for allowing teachers to interact with a wide range of students in real time.

But the Mathematica researchers found that’s more aspiration than reality.

“Students in a typical online charter school have less synchronous instructional time in a week than students in brick-and-mortar schools have in a day,” they wrote.

In looking at the impact of attending an online charter school, the CREDO researchers contrasted the annual academic growth of students attending online charters with that of a comparison group that was similar in terms of grade level, gender, race/ethnicity, poverty, English-language-learner and special education status, and prior scores on state tests.

Members of the comparison group attended the traditional brick-and-mortar schools where their peers would most likely have landed had they not been cybercharter students.

The analysis focuses on academic growth, not absolute achievement.

The analysis CREDO conducted for its piece of the three-part study, called Online Charter School Study 2015, included data from 158 schools in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

In a statement, K12 Inc., a for-profit company affiliated with schools that enrolled more than one-third of online charter students in 2013, attacked that methodology, saying it’s impossible to create legitimate “virtual twins” for online charter students, as the CREDO researchers purported to do.

In their analysis, the CREDO researchers found that online charter schools in 13 states showed far weaker gains in reading than traditional schools. In two states, no significant differences between online charters and traditional schools were found. Online charters showed positive effects on reading gains in Georgia and Wisconsin.

Math a Particular Problem

Online charters were not found to have a positive effect on mathematical gains in any state. In three states, no significant differences were found. The CREDO researchers found that online charters showed significantly weaker math gains than traditional schools in 14 states.

Just about any way the data were sliced for online charters—by racial and ethnic subgroups, for students in poverty, by instructional and management model, compared with brick-and-mortar charters—the story of weak academic growth in online charters was largely the same.

“All student profiles ... have weaker growth in online charter schools than in [traditional public schools],” the CREDO report says. “This is due to the overwhelming negative impact on student growth from attending an online charter school.”

About two-thirds of online charter schools contract with for-profit education management organizations for help with curriculum, assessments, professional development, and management services.

K12 Inc., the largest such organization, said in its statement that it has been aware of academic challenges among its students for some time and has invested millions of dollars in efforts to improve.

“We have taken vigorous actions over the past two years to meet these challenges with results not reflected in this study,” the statement says. “We are proud of where we are today and where we are going.”

In a statement, Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said she was “disheartened to learn of the large-scale underperformance of full-time virtual charter public schools.”

She cited possible changes that might help the sector, including funding online charters based on performance, rather than enrollment.

Rees also noted that the new reports do not address students in brick-and-mortar schools who take an occasional course online, or “blended” models that combine online and face-to-face instruction. Full-time online schools operated by states and districts were also not included in the CREDO, CRPE, and Mathematica studies.

Those caveats aside, the new findings provoked a common reaction from researchers and practitioners alike.

“My recommendation to policymakers is to first address the quality-assurance question before continuing to open up access” to online charters, said Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Cybercharter Students Fall Far Behind on Academic Measures, New Reports Say


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
The Fall K-3 Classroom: What the data imply about composition, challenges and opportunities
The data tracking learning loss among the nation’s schoolchildren confirms that things are bad and getting worse. The data also tells another story — one with serious implications for the hoped for learning recovery initiatives
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
Student Well-Being Online Summit Student Mental Health
Attend this summit to learn what the data tells us about student mental health, what schools can do, and best practices to support students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology From Our Research Center During COVID-19, Schools Have Made a Mad Dash to 1-to-1 Computing. What Happens Next?
Districts that purchased devices for hybrid and remote learning will have to determine how to use them for in-person instruction.
8 min read
A line of volunteers carries iPads to be delivered to parents at curbside pickup at Eastside Elementary on March 23, 2020, in Clinton, Miss. Educators are handing out the devices for remote learning while students are forced to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak.
A line of volunteers carries iPads to be delivered to parents at curbside pickup at Eastside Elementary a year ago in Clinton, Miss.<br/>
Julio Cortez/AP
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center Most Students Now Have Home Internet Access. But What About the Ones Who Don't?
Here's what school districts, states, and the federal governments are doing to improve at-home access to digital devices and the Internet.
8 min read
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas on April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis.
Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advanced placement World History teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays one of the Wi-Fi hotspots that were handed out to students in Dallas in April of 2020. The Dallas school district gave the devices to students who needed them to do schoolwork at home during the pandemic.<br/>
Tony Gutierrez/AP
Classroom Technology From Our Research Center 'A Year of Tremendous Growth.' How the Pandemic Forced Teachers to Master Technology
Educators nationwide say their ability to use technology for instruction improved significantly during the pandemic.
6 min read
Fifth grade teacher April Whipp welcomes back her students virtually during the first day of school at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School on Aug.13, 2020 in Louisa County, Va.
Fifth grade teacher April Whipp welcomes back her students virtually in August during the first day of school at Moss-Nuckols Elementary School in Louisa County, Va.
Erin Edgerton/The Daily Progress via AP
Classroom Technology Opinion How Teachers and Curriculum Will Shape Ed Tech's Future: A CEO Makes the Case
The increased use of ed tech during the pandemic has teachers examining which tools have earned a permanent place in their practice.
Larry Berger
6 min read
Illustration shows three people--two males and one female. There is a male standing on a laptop holding a large pencil and pointing to the laptop screen and the woman who is also standing on the open laptop is holding a folder and also pointing to the laptop screen. A third person (male) is sitting near the open laptop reading a book.
Irina_Streinikova/iStock/Getty Images Plus