Thursday, May 2, 2013

As Online Elementary and Secondary Schools Expand, Academic Performance Lags

A national study, released today by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), offers a comprehensive review of 311 full-time virtual schools operating in the United States and finds serious and systemic problems with them.

University of Colorado Boulder Professor Alex Molnar, who edited Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence, summed it up this way: “Even a cursory review of virtual schooling in the U.S. reveals an environment much like the legendary wild west. There are outsized claims, lagging performance, intense conflicts, lots of taxpayer money at stake, and very little solid evidence to justify the rapid expansion of virtual schools.”

Lagging Performance – Soaring Enrollment

On the publicly-available metrics of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), virtual schools lag significantly behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

In the 2010-2011 school year, 52 percent of brick-and-mortar district and charter schools met AYP, contrasted with 23.6 percent of virtual schools – a 28 percentage-point gap. Virtual schools also enroll a far smaller percentage of low-income students, special education students, and English language learners than brick-and-mortar public schools.

“It now appears that early adopters of the virtual school model were largely home-schoolers who were used to studying alone and who generally had lots of parental guidance,” said Western Michigan University Professor Gary Miron. “As virtual schools have expanded, it appears that their performance has slipped dramatically.”

Currently virtual schools enroll more than 200,000 elementary and secondary students in 39 states and the District of Columbia. McLean, Virginia- based K12 Inc. is by far the largest private operator in this sector.

Expansion Driven by Lobbying and Advertising Rather than Student Success

Despite virtual schools’ track record of students falling behind their peers academically or dropping-out at higher rates, states and districts continue to expand virtual schools and online offerings to students.

Publicly-funded virtual school expansion appears to be driven by lobbying and advertising dollars. It is not justified by the research evidence, nor is it governed by thoughtful policy.

Columbia University Professor Luis Huerta, another of the report’s authors, noted that, “In the past two years a number of states, including Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, and Michigan, either raised or eliminated enrollment caps for full-time virtual schools.”

Co-author Jennifer King Rice, a University of Maryland professor, points out that at the same time, ”None of those states passed legislation strengthening accountability and oversight.”

High Cost to Taxpayers

The overall cost to taxpayers for lackluster virtual schools has been significant. Despite incurring much lower costs than brick-and-mortar schools, virtual school operators receive the same allocation as charter schools that pay for buildings, desks, textbooks, and other costs associated with more traditional school settings.

The consistently poor performance of full-time virtual schools makes it imperative to know more about these schools. Stanford University Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban, who contributed a review of current research knowledge on virtual education to the NEPC report and has long followed education technology issues, explained: “The current climate of elementary and secondary school reform that promotes uncritical acceptance of any and all virtual education innovations is not supported by educational research. A model that is built around churn is not sustainable; the unchecked growth of virtual school is essentially an education tech bubble.”


The authors of the NEPC report conclude that continued rapid expansion of full-time cyber schools is unwise. More research is needed, and to enable such research, state oversight agencies need to require more, and better refined, data. Financial controls and funding unique to cyber schools need to be established.

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