Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence is the second in a series of annual reports from the NEPC on the full-time online education sector. The 2014 report looked at 338 virtual schools operating in 30 states as part of local or state public education systems.
“Full-time K-12 online learning is growing exponentially. Many policymakers praise it, and taxpayer money supports it,” says the report’s editor, Professor Alex Molnar of the University of Colorado Boulder, where the NEPC is housed at the CU Boulder School of Education.
“And yet, there has been little high-quality research to support the claims that justify its rapid expansion.”
Examining several sources of data, the report found virtual schools enroll 248,000 elementary and secondary students in 39 states and the District of Columbia, up 21.7 percent from 2011-2012.
The report finds that a single for-profit virtual school provider, K12 Inc., accounts for 82 schools enrolling 87,808 students in 2013 – more than one-third of the nation’s full-time virtual school students.
Among other findings in the 2014 report:
- Student diversity still lags in the online classroom; 3 out of 4 full-time virtual school students are white, non-Hispanic – although that same group accounts for 54 percent of public school students.
- The percentages of African American and Hispanic students are far below their respective shares of the public school student population.
- Virtual schools also serve a smaller percentage of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners than do other public schools.
- Virtual schools also compare less favorably to traditional public schools in various measures of student achievement and school performance.
“Across all measures of school performance, including AYP status, school performance ratings, student results on standardized tests and graduation rates, virtual schools are significantly below performance levels for brick and mortar public schools,” says Professor Gary Miron, who contributed to the report’s section on performance data. “The evidence is overwhelming when you consider the magnitude in the difference in performance outcomes and add to this the fact that these findings remain consistent over time.”
The report’s authors recommend greater efforts by policymakers to require virtual schools to report more data on student and teacher performance, in part because so little high-quality research exists to justify the sector’s rapid growth. They also recommend that policymakers enforce higher quality standards and require greater transparency and accountability on the part of the sector.