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Investigation into Virtual School Prompts Concern

The New York Times today paints a bleak picture for teachers, students, and parents in online schools, particularly run by the online learning giant K12 Inc.

A story in the paper highlights overall lower student performance in online schools, specifically in the Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania run by K12 Inc. The article criticizes the school for failing to screen students effectively for success in an online environment and high teacher-to-student ratios that drive the operation costs down while increasing profit. It also suggests cyber schools usurp money from public school districts by keeping public money for students that end up dropping out shortly after enrolling, and collecting money for students that rarely or never log in and spend little time on online coursework.

The article is the latest in a growing body of work criticizing virtual schools. A large part of the problem comes from discrepancies in how virtual schools are run, how they teach students, how they are evaluated, and overall quality.

There is still little rigorous, large-scale research on the effectiveness of K12 online learning. Some often cite the U.S. Department of Education's meta-analysis of online learning as evidence that online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning, but they usual fail to mention that the study used zero data from K-12 programs. In fact, the meta-analysis found no K-12 research met the criteria to be analyzed and warned against applying findings from the overall analysis to K-12:

An unexpected finding of the literature search, however, was the small number of published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K-12 students. Because the search encompassed the research literature not only on K-12 education but also on career technology, medical and higher education, as well as corporate and military training, it yielded enough studies with older learners to justify a quantitative meta-analysis. Thus, analytic findings with implications for K-12 learning are reported here, but caution is required in generalizing to the K-12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).

It's obvious that there is a need for more rigorous research on virtual schools and online learning, especially considering the continuous growth of this industry from year to year. Without that research and insight into what makes virtual schools effective or ineffective, it's almost impossible to regulate the differences in quality between various virtual schools.

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