Online Schools Deemed Ineffective By Stanford Study

November 4, 2015

By Jason Burns

The results of a recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University are shaking up the educational technology community. According to this report, the academic growth of students who attend “online charter schools,” where a majority of instruction takes place over the internet, falls far behind the growth of students who receive their education in traditional settings.

Alarming Results

Image courtesy of Lazar Dimitrijev.

Image courtesy of Lazar Dimitrijev.

The gap in achievement between students in online charter schools and traditional settings is alarming! The difference is equivalent to students in online schools receiving 72 fewer days of instruction in reading and 180 fewer days (or a whole school year) of instruction in math. The low performance of students in online charters was so stark that Margaret Raymond, the project director of this study, described it as “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year.”

To conduct the analysis, CREDO obtained data on student achievement in online charter schools from 17 states and the District of Columbia as well as student achievement in traditional schools nationwide. Using this data, researchers were able to identify “virtual twins,” or pairs of students who had similar backgrounds and levels of achievement with the only difference being whether they attended an online charter school. Researchers then used the growth of students in these two groups to compare how students in online charters would be expected to perform in a traditional school setting.

The difference in achievement was similar among subgroups as well students overall. Students living in poverty, English Language Learners, students with special needs, and students of racial/ethnic backgrounds all performed significantly worse in online charter schools compared to students in a traditional setting.

Differences By State

While certainly the overall findings are alarming, some findings from this study may help shed light on how to improve student performance in the online charter sector. In reading, students who received instruction from online charters in Georgia and Wisconsin actually performed higher than students in traditional settings. Thus, we might ask what’s going on there that isn’t occurring elsewhere. In other states, Michigan and Illinois, reading achievement was similar in online charter schools and traditional schools. In math, students in online and traditional schools had similar levels of growth in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Again, we might ask, why are these states able to maintain similar levels of achievement while others fall behind?

While the report cannot answer these questions precisely, the authors do find a relationship between student performance and state-level policies around online charters. Stronger state-level accountability for online charters was related to higher levels of growth for students in those schools compared to student growth in states with weaker accountability for online charters.

Benefit vs. Replace

Seeing how other sectors of society like medicine, business, and communication have been revolutionized by technology, education reformers have seen technology as a way to “fix” schools. And while this study does not support the notion that technology cannot benefit students and schools, it does suggest that technology cannot simply replace teachers and schools.

Supporting The Work Of Educators

Technology is a tool and to help attain a particular goal, not as something to pursue in and of itself. In education, this means finding ways to employ technology in a manner that supports the work of educators. Indeed, initiatives that share this view of technology appear to be successful. An ongoing evaluation of math lessons from Khan Academy, a website that blends short video lectures with exercises and tracks individuals’ progress through math concepts, find that teachers see the site as a helpful tool to monitor student progress and identify those most in need of help. In another instance, a superintendent credits a focus on pedagogy rather than devices with the success of an educational technology plan in his district.

Research does not often reach conclusions as stark as those found in CREDO’s Online Charter School Study (see here). The findings of this report should spark a public discussion on the appropriate role of technology in schooling. Research that identifies what works, as well as what doesn’t, should be brought to bear on important questions such as the degree to which technology may replace traditional instruction. And in this case, policymakers may be wise to consider how far the digital revolution should go in education.

Jason Burns – burnsja6@msu.edu