Although virtual schools continue to grow each year, more research and accountability is needed to foster and support effective online educational environments, says a new report from the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education.
"We want to harness all the benefits of technology to really propel student learning ... but at the same time we find the lack of really good information about results and accountability really troubling," said Patte Barth, a co-author of the report and the director of the Center for Public Education, which provides data and research for school board members and other educators, in a conference call with the media.
Full-time online schools have gained 50,000 more students in the past year alone, bringing the total number of students participating in such virtual learning environments up to 250,000, the report said.
However, the research on how successful those schools are is mixed, with the majority of research finding higher dropout rates and lower test scores for full-time online students than their counterparts in brick-and-mortar schools. On the other hand, two small scale studies found that online students actually had higher rates of academic growth, suggesting that online learning can be an effective way of educating students.
One reason behind the low completion rates could be because of the way that online schools are monitoring student participation and progress, said the report. While almost all schools look to final grades as a way to track student progress, only about half of districts with students in online courses track their time spent online or log-in activity. "It's hard to imagine a classroom where they don't take attendance every day," said Barth.
The report also looked at how virtual schools receive funding, which varies from state to state. In some cases, the report said, the funding follows the student from his or her district. In other cases, the student receives funding based on the district where the virtual school operates.
Either way, the report argues, the funding model is not actually based on how much it costs to educate the student in a virtual learning model. "The absence of accounting for the true cost of virtual education leads to a lack of accountability for many virtual schools," said the report.
In addition, keeping track of how many students are in virtual education, and where the funding for that student is going, is difficult to determine, the report said, citing Colorado as an example. In that state, schools receive per-pupil funding based on where each student is on October 1st of each year. However, reports have found that between 30 and 50 percent of students in virtual charter schools leave those schools after October 1st, transferring the cost of their education to their home schools while the virtual schools retain the funding.
Overall, the report offered three recommendations for school board members, educators, and policymakers when pursuing virtual education as an option. Those leaders should demand more information about virtual learning before moving forward with it. Secondly, virtual schools should put systems in place to closely and frequently monitor student progress. And lastly, educators should demand better research and information about how much money it takes to provide a virtual education, how virtual schools are funded, and where that money is going.
Despite the words of caution regarding online learning, Barth insisted that NSBA's Center for Public Education was a supporter of that type of education. "We are very much in favor of it," she said. "It will happen, and it needs to happen. ... What we're trying to do as a center is to send out a note of caution that because something is working in one high school somewhere doesn't mean you can rapidly expand it and expect the same results, and you certainly can't expand it without data collection systems in place."