After Maine opened on-line charter schools, big national study found major problems

On-line education has been growing in Maine. Two on-line charter schools (i.e., “virtual academies”) have opened and the University of Maine System has been promoting on-line education, too.

However, new reports from CREDO, a well-respected research institute at Stanford University, and two other excellent educational research centers, raise serious questions about the quality of on-line charters.

Because Maine’s on-line charters are pretty new, those were not included in these studies.

CREDO, by the way, is not anti-charter in general, either by philosophy nor in the empirical results they’ve reported. Moreover, it receives funding from a pro-charter foundation, the Walton Family Foundation.

What was found is very concerning.

On-line charter students fell behind those in traditional, non-virtual schools.

As the Washington Post reported:

  • Students in online charters lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading.
  • Students in online charters lost 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year. Yes, you read that right. As my colleague Lyndsey Layton wrote in this story about the study, it’s as if the students did not attend school at all when it comes to math.
  • The average student in an online charter had lower reading scores than students in traditional schools everywhere except Wisconsin and Georgia, and had lower math scores everywhere except in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Problems with the on-line charters might be due to how they typically operate.

As a press release from CREDO noted, there is very limited interaction between students and teachers.

In fact, “Online charter schools typically provide students with less live teacher contact time in a week than students in conventional schools have in a day.” [source]

As an award winning series by Colin Woodard revealed, money influenced how on-line education was adopted in Maine. As Woodard wrote:

[L]arge portions of Maine’s digital education agenda are being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to capitalize on the changes, especially the nation’s two largest online education providers.

Maine’s on-line charters should be scrutinized to see how well they perform compared to traditional schools. 

K12 Inc., which runs one of Maine’s, has faced many criticisms for student performance in other states. (K12 Inc. is also currently being investigated by the Attorney General of California and by investors.)

We will have to find out if these on-line charter schools are good uses of taxpayer money.

Note: There are three reports in all. They can be read here, here and here.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.