Slow Further Expansion of Virtual Schools

Second Major Virtual Schools Report Urges Policymakers to Slow the growth of virtual schools amid lingering questions, poor performances...

In the mid-1990s, as personal computers became staples of modern households, what we now know as virtual schools began appearing in the United States, spreading nationwide from their epicenter in California and Utah. Today, full-time virtual schools enroll 243,000 students – a 21-percent jump from just a year earlier.
Like the personal computers that spawned them, virtual schools are fast becoming a staple in modern educational life, with states making online learning critical pillars of education policy.

An updated report now shows that the breakneck growth of virtual schools has masked a disturbing fact: despite states’ readiness to embrace them, virtual schools and online learning programs remain shrouded in significant question marks. Their true impact on children’s education is obscured behind scant, inconsistent and unreliable information.

And until reasons for virtual schools’ relatively poor performances can be identified and addressed, policymakers should slow or even stop their expansion, the report concludes, Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence, edited by Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

As contributing author Michael Barbour of Sacred Heart University writes in his report: “While there has been some improvement in what is known about supplemental K-12 online learning, there continues to be a lack of reliable and valid evidence to guide the practice of full-time K-12 online learning. Yet it is the full-time K-12 online learning that has seen the greatest growth in recent years.”

The report points out multiple areas where information about virtual schools’ performance is lacking.

By at least one measure, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), virtual schools lag behind brick-and-mortar schools by more than 22 percentage points. The problem is especially acute among for-profit schools, such as K12 Inc. and Connections Academies, which account for 72 percent of all enrolled virtual school students.
And while the national average for on-time graduation rates is 78.6 percent, the rate for virtual schools is only 43.8 percent – nearly 35 points behind.
The dearth of information understandably prevents policymakers and education experts from finding ways to effectively and efficiently improve the performance of virtual schools, the report says.

The lack of information combined with a failure to adequately help kids learn should give policymakers enough reason to hit the pause button. Moving forward on an educational experiment that has real world implications for children without reliable, consistent information is risky.

One way to begin gathering information that can better ensure children learn in virtual schools is by requiring virtual schools to report key data to states and improve the information gathered by state education agencies and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The report also recommended that virtual schools devote resources toward instruction, especially reducing student-teacher ratios. The report offers several additional suggestions for policymakers:

  • Develop new funding formulas based on actual operating costs of virtual schools.
  • Develop new accountability structures, with appropriate resources to sustain them.
  • Develop governance mechanisms to ensure schools do not put profits ahead of student performance.
  • Develop long-term programs to independently research and evaluate full-time K-12 online learning –which remains missing even though online education has been around for 20 years.

Additionally, the report identified 30 states and the District of Columbia that allow full-time virtual schools to operate, and even more states allow, or require, one or more courses be delivered online to public school students – despite a lack of credible research evidence related to online education.

The majority of students in virtual schools are enrolled in programs that are run for profit, so it’s even more important states get more information, more accountability and higher standards to ensure children have the opportunity to learn and succeed.

Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014 provides an important roadmap going forward.

Contributing authors to Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence include Gary Miron of Western Michigan University; Luis Huerta of Teachers College, Columbia University; Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland; and Michael Barbour of Sacred Heart University. Contributors to this study also include Sheryl Shafer of Teachers College, Columbia University, Brian Horvitz of Western Michigan University, and Charisse Gulosino at the University of Memphis.

Find the report on the Great Lakes Center website:
This report is also found on the NEPC website:

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