Online charter schools deliver consistently low scores under little oversight — new report

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Online charter schools are failing children, who show significantly lower gains in achievement than their peers in traditional schools and enroll in programs that have little regulatory oversight, according to a blistering new report unveiled Tuesday.

The analysis was split into three chunks conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, respectively. The groups take a comprehensive look at how online charter schools operate, serve students and function under various state policies.

“It’s clear that online schools create constraint and opportunity for learning,” said Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica who conducted the first part of the research. “You don’t have the ability to see students in their seats and learning.”

Achievement is so low that it’s the same as a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days in math based on a 180-day school year, researchers said, which remained consistent across racial-ethnic and socioeconomic populations.

“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,” said James Woolworth, senior quantitative research analyst for CREDO at Stanford University.

The analysis included data from 158 online schools across the country, and focused on students attending public, full-time online charter schools, which operate in about 27 states. They enrolled approximately 200,000 students in the 2013-14 school year, with the most concentrated in Ohio, Pennsylvania and California (they collectively enroll half of online charter students nationwide). Two-thirds of the schools contract with for-profit education management organizations, which raises concerns that the companies are more interested in profits than proficiency.

Surveying principals at the online charter schools, the researchers found that independent study is the most common form of instruction. Very few schools use lectures.

“Principals told us that the single biggest challenge by far is keeping students engaged,” he said. “The majority of online schools expect parents to participate in training sessions, and a substantial percentage expect parents to actively participate in the students’ instruction.”

While many students who enroll in online charter schools do so because they are dealing with difficult circumstances — they work, or have special needs, or have a family member to care for — the study found that there was little attention focused on parental engagement, or the ability of low-income families to purchase necessary technology hardware and Internet access.

Charter school laws “also rarely promote innovation in online charter schools,” according to the report. “Only five out of the 27 states we studied fund online charter schools based on course completion, for example.”

States typically can set laws and regulations that can reel in online schools or allow them to blossom. They can set caps on enrollment, requirements for teachers and methods by which schools are funded. But there are other factors involved, like how much money is poured into coffers of politicians who will advocate for online schools’ growth. In Pennsylvania, mega virtual school operator K12 Inc. spent more than $1.25 million lobbying the state Legislature between 2007 and 2015, according to the report.

The charter school operator has also come under fire in California for letting students with special needs fall through the cracks, which was also uncovered in Tuesday’s report.

“These are not the happiest of findings, unfortunately,” said Robin Lake, director of CRPE. She added that operating outside of traditional classroom walls could be positive and promote innovation, but it also brings “challenges with oversight.”

“We saw online charter school policy as more of an afterthought,” she said.

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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