Inside Online Charter Schools

Lucas Walsh

Eric Grau

Amanda Lee

Tess Kerwin

Key Findings

Key Findings:

  • 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
  • These findings suggest reason for concern about whether the online charter school sector is likely to be effective in promoting the achievement of its students

Online charter schools—also known as virtual charters or cyber charters—are publicly funded schools of choice that deliver student instruction via telecommunications. Today, about 200 online charter schools are operating in the United States, serving about 200,000 students at the elementary, middle, and high school grade levels. Although online instruction is increasing rapidly, there have been few studies of their operations and effects. In innovative new research funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the National Study of Online Charter Schools offers a rigorous analysis of online charter schools and their effects. Mathematica Policy Research’s report provides the first nationwide data and analysis of the operations and instructional approaches of online charter schools, based on data collected in a survey completed by 127 principals of online charter schools across the country and public data from the U.S. Department of Education.

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