Online Charter Schools Underperform Compared to Traditional Schools

New research indicates that online charter schools underperform when compared to brick-and-mortar schools.

According to research from NYU Steinhardt and RAND Corporation, students in online charter schools perform worse on standardized tests than do their peers in traditional public or charter schools.

This is based on research in Ohio, which has allowed online charter schools since the early 2000s, and had about 35,000 students enrolled in such schools by 2013.

Online charter schools can be maintained by a variety of different organizations, including schools, nonprofits, and for-profit companies, which means a wide range of quality. But more important than the quality of the material presented, is the lack of mentors, teachers, and peers with whom students can interact.

“Our research suggests that online schools—in their current form, a largely independent learning experience—are not effective for K-12 learners,” said study author June Ahn of NYU Steinhardt.

Advocates of online charter schools argue that the technology used in online learning could expand courses available to students and provide flexibility in schedules and locations. However, if they are not effective, that point is moot.

Most of the online charter students in Ohio were in high school, having completed much of their basic education in brick-and-mortar schools before taking their schooling online. But those students fells behind their peers, even when those peers had previously lagged behind them.

Another interesting finding of the research was that low-income, lower-achieving white students are more likely to choose online charter schools, while low-income, lower-achieving students of color are more likely to attend brick-and-mortar charter schools. The researchers do point out, however, that traditional charter schools tend to be clustered in urban areas, where the percentage of students of color is higher than it is in rural areas.

“Our findings reveal that, across all grades and subjects, students in online charter schools perform worse on standardized assessments and are significantly less likely to pass Ohio’s test for high school graduation than their peers in traditional charter and traditional public schools,” said study co-author Andrew McEachin of RAND Corporation.

Although the delivery of educational material is already taking digital media into account, it remains to be seen whether the Ohio study is indicative of online charter school education across the U.S.

“It is well established that technology as a delivery mechanism has no direct impact on student learning outcomes,” said Ahn. “What really matters is understanding how the introduction of technology impacts who chooses to participate in particular learning environments, and what they experience that results in learning outcomes.”

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