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Virtual Schools Need a Grounding in Reality

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By Anne L. Bryant, Executive Director of the National School Boards Association

We've all seen the fast-growth of online learning in the K-12 public education sector, and the many new opportunities emerging for students and schools. But with all this rapid growth, are too many students getting lost in cyber space?

Quite possibly, yes. That's the conclusion of a new report by the National School Board Association's Center for Public Education, "Searching for the Reality of Virtual Schools," which looked at what little data exists on student outcomes, from a single online class to full-time virtual schooling.

NSBA, with its Technology Leadership Network (TLN), has been a leader in educational technology for more than 20 years, and through our annual site visits and conferences we've seen many success stories in online learning. Public schools have long used what was once termed "distance" or "satellite learning," where students could watch lessons remotely. And the internet gives students unlimited opportunities — for instance, students in rural areas can take an Advanced Placement or a foreign language course that is not offered at their local school, or a struggling student can take a credit recovery class. Online tutoring guru Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, thrilled the more than 7,000 attendees of NSBA's Annual Conference last month showing how his online tutorials have become a tremendous tool for classrooms and students around the world.

The field of full-time online learning, though, is emerging as a much different story. There are some 250,000 students now enrolled in full-time virtual schools, an increase of 50,000 in one year and four times the number it was a decade ago.

The rate at which state legislatures have approved these institutions is remarkable. What's more remarkable, perhaps, is that the Center found these schools operate with few accountability measures, and states and districts are paying online providers from 70 to 100 percent of the costs of educating students in traditional schools, even though their actual costs should be much lower.

All of this has taken place with no research to back it up — in fact, what little research and anecdotal evidence exists on full-time virtual learning shows alarmingly low graduation rates, course completion and test scores.

Take Ohio, which has the largest number of students enrolled in full-time virtual schools, more than 31,000 in the 2010-11 school year. Of the state's 27 virtual schools, only three were rated "effective" or "excellent" on the state's accountability scale in 2010, with the two largest (which together enroll more than half of those students) rated as "continuous improvement." And, according to the Ohio Department of Education, their on-time graduation rates were well under 50 percent. A Stanford University study of Pennsylvania charter schools found that its eight virtual charters performed significantly worse in reading and math than their traditional school counterparts.

And Michigan just passed a law allowing the creation of 15 new virtual charter schools. The schools would get the same per-pupil funding as traditional schools, but the only reporting requirements are for costs to operate, not academic progress.

Meanwhile, the for-profit online companies are racking in huge profits primarily from taxpayer dollars. K12 Inc., the nation's largest provider, expects revenues this year of about $700 million, up from $522 million last year, according to the Washington Post, and is planning to expand its operations to preschool.

These companies are lobbying heavily for legislators to fund their products, and it's not hard to find conflicts of interest. For instance, I recently wrote in the Huffington Post about a proposal by John E. Chubb, the head of an online investment firm with significant investments in K-12 and postsecondary online learning, to give every family the option of a government-funded virtual education for their children (with the government paying the same per-pupil funding to virtual providers as traditional schools).

We must also consider that a level of maturity and self-discipline is required for students to succeed in a full-time virtual school — not to mention the desire for actual interaction with peers and teachers.

That's not to say all is wrong with virtual schools: The Center found research that showed some elementary students performed fairly well, possibly because their parents were more involved in their education. The TLN highlighted successful virtual schools during its 2012 site visit to the Clark County School District in Las Vegas and its 2010 visit to the Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado.

The Center's report has some important recommendations for educators and lawmakers:

"Policymakers and school leaders will need to make smart choices so that online learning adds value to the quality of instruction and students have the support they need to be successful," the authors write. "States will need to establish straightforward funding policies based on a clearer understanding of true costs, how the money is distributed, and the impact on local school districts. There must be transparency in the administration of online learning and clear accountability for student results."

Until we take a hard look at the potential and peril of virtual schools, lawmakers must tread much more cautiously.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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