Online Charter Schools Struggle to Engage Their Students

New National Study Details the Operations and Effects of Online Charter Schools
Oct 27, 2015

online charter schools


Innovative new research funded by the Walton Family Foundation suggests that students of online charter schools had significantly weaker academic performance in math and reading, compared with their counterparts in conventional schools. The National Study of Online Charter Schools offers a rigorous analysis of the operations of online charter schools, their policy environments, and their impacts on student achievement. 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.  In Volume I, Mathematica Policy Research describes the universe of online charter schools, the students they serve, and their operations. In Volume II, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington describes the policy environments of online charter schools and provides recommendations to state policymakers. In Volume III, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University describes the achievement effects of online charter schools.

KEY FINDINGS

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.”

Additional findings from the Volume I report are available: InFocus Fact Sheet. 

Findings from Volume II, regarding the policy environments of online charter schools, are available from CRPE. 

Findings from Volume III, highlighting achievement effects of online charter schools, are available from CREDO.


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