A massive national study of online charter schools has found that 70 percent of students at cyber schools are falling behind their peers at traditional public institutions.
The study, released Tuesday by three policy and research centers, found the online schools have an "overwhelming negative impact."
Stanford University researchers said their analysis showed severe shortfalls in reading and math achievement. The shortfall for most cyber students, they said, was equal to losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days in math during the typical 180-day school year.
"While the overall findings of our analysis are somber, we do believe the information will serve as the foundation for constructive discussions on the role of online schools in the K-12 sector," said James Woodworth, senior quantitative research analyst at Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).
Another scholar, Brian Gill, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research in Cambridge, Mass. cautioned, "I don't think we should view these findings as saying that online education does not work."
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an advocacy group based in Washington, said the findings were so troubling that the report should be "a call to action for authorizers and policymakers."
Pennsylvania's 14 cyber schools, which enroll more than 35,000 students, were among those studied. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California account for half the nation's 200,000 students who were enrolled in approximately 200 cyber schools in 2011-12.
"One of the largest online charter schools in the country, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, enrolled 10,982 students in 2011-12," according to the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, one of the three research collaborators.
The K-12 cyber school, based in Midland in Western Pennsylvania, that year reported "revenues of $110 million and net assets of $57 million [which] resembles a mid-sized school district more, rather than an individual school," the authors said.
There are no cyber schools in New Jersey.
Mathematica found that students at cyber schools are in classes that are larger than those at district or regular charter schools, and receive less individual attention from their teachers. Most cyber schools expect parents to be active participants in their children's learning and attend training sessions.
Mathematica collaborated with the University of Washington center and CREDO in preparing the report, and used results from cyber-school administrators who described their schools' operations in surveys.
"Online charter schools do expect a lot of parents," Gill, of Mathematica, told reporters.
In the survey, cyber principals reported that the biggest challenge they face is making sure students are engaged.
Gill said that challenge may be inherent to schools where students receive their lessons at home, because teachers are "unable to make sure kids are in their seats, so to speak, and learning."
Fifty-seven percent of the nation's cyber schools are affiliated with management organizations. And more than half of those cyber schools have ties with the nation's two largest for-profit education management companies: K12 Inc. in Virginia and Connections Education L.L.C. in Baltimore.
Both companies have contracts with some cyber schools in Pennsylvania, and typically are involved with large online schools.
"With such high enrollment in a limited number of schools . . . a program that is lacking in quality may affect many thousands of students within one school and even more nationwide, especially if it is permitted to operate year after year with no accountability," the Center for Reinventing Public Education said.
Connections is a partner with Commonwealth Connections Academy in Harrisburg, which has 8,800 students.
K12 once provided management and other services for Agora and Pennsylvania Virtual in King of Prussia. Both schools have ended their management contracts with K12 but still purchase curriculum from the company.
None of Pennsylvania's cyber schools met state benchmarks in 2013-14, the most recent year available. The state Department of Education has turned down all applications for new cyber charters for three years.
The Center for Education Reform, a veteran charter-advocacy group in Washington, said in a statement, "Online charter schools provide a much-needed option within a larger portfolio of public school programs that offer students the opportunity to identify a learning environment that is right for them."
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Number of cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania.
Approximate number of Pa. students in cyber charters.