Distance Learning

Online Charter School Students Lag Behind Peers in Math and Reading

Outcomes for students attending online public charter schools are failing to keep pace with those of their peers in traditional public schools, according to a new three-volume report released Tuesday.

The report — from Mathematica Policy Research, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) — identified outcomes in math and reading as trouble spots.

Particularly: The majority of students attending online charters showed weaker growth in math and reading.

"To conceptualize this shortfall, it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year," according to researchers. "This pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial and ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty."

The report noted, however, that the average outcomes "mask the story of the underlying distribution. Around the average, some online charters will perform better and some will perform worse than the average. While overall results establish a baseline for discussion, these results are not subtle enough to provide insight for policy implications."

The report also found that:

  • A full third of online charter schools offer only self-paced instruction;
  • 76 percent offer some courses that are self-paced, with "individualized, student-driven independent study" the dominant instructional method; and
  • Students attending online spend less time in a week with their teachers than students at traditional schools spend in a day with them;

"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," according to Brian Gill, a Mathematica senior fellow and lead author of the report.

The report noted that a number of policies may be hindering the potential of online charters, including open admission policies that prevent schools from "screening for students who are most likely to be successful in an online" setting.

Some policy recommendations included:

  • Experimenting with new funding models, including one suggestion that online charters could compete on the cost of tuition, with any savings surplus placed "into a personalized learning savings account to be invested by students and families on education-related expenses, including higher education";
  • Establishing criteria for enrollment and eliminating open enrollment; and
  • Requiring online charters to submit more student data, since they are at a greater risk of student "disengagement" than traditional schools.

"We need policies that address legitimate concerns without needlessly restricting growth," according to CRPE director Robin Lake, who co-authored the study.

The full report is freely available in three separate volumes:

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 29-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEDavidNagel (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).