The fourth edition of the National Education Policy Center’s annual report on online and blended learning schools provides a detailed overview and inventory of full-time virtual and blended learning schools, also called hybrid schools. Little rigorous research has examined the inner workings of these schools, but evidence indicates that students differ from those in traditional public schools, and that school outcomes are consistently below traditional public schools. Nevertheless, enrollment growth has continued, assisted by vigorous advertising campaigns, corporate lobbying, and favorable legislation.
Gary Miron, professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University, and Charisse Gulosino, assistant professor of leadership and policy studies at the University of Memphis, are the authors of this year’s Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review. This report provides a detailed census of full-time virtual and blended schools, including student demographics, state-specific school performance ratings, and a comparison of virtual school outcomes with state norms.
The scope of this study covers charter and district-operated virtual schools and blended learning schools. Miron notes that “large private education management organizations dominate the full-time virtual sector and they are increasing their market share in the blended school sector.” Districts are opening their own virtual and blended learning schools, although these are typically smaller and with limited enrollment relative to charter-operated virtual and blended schools.
“Measures of school performance consistently show virtual school outcomes that lag significantly behind those of traditional brick-and-mortar schools,” said Gulosino. “While this finding did not surprise us, given past research with similar findings, we were surprised to find that blended schools tended to score similar or lower on performance measures than virtual schools.”
The authors conclude that, given the rapid growth of virtual and blended schools and their relatively poor outcomes on widely used accountability measures, several recommendations should be followed:
- Policymakers should slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed. States should place their first priority on understanding why virtual schools and blended schools perform weakly under a college- and career-ready accountability system and how their performance can be improved before undertaking any measures to expand these relatively new models of schooling.
- Oversight authorities should hold virtual schools and blended schools to the same standards as other publicly funded schools, if they fail to improve performance.
- Policymakers should require virtual schools and blended schools to devote more resources to instruction, particularly by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers.
- State agencies should ensure that virtual schools and blended schools fully report data related to the population of students they serve and the teachers they employ.
- State and federal policymakers should promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools and blended schools. Passage of the Every
- Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents an opportunity for those states with a growing virtual and blended school sector to improve upon their accountability systems for reporting data on school performance measures.
Policymakers and other stakeholders should support more research to identify which policy options—especially those impacting funding and accountability mechanisms—are most likely to promote successful virtual schools and blended schools. More research is also needed to increase understanding of the inner workings of virtual and blended schools, including such factors as the curriculum and the nature of student-teacher interactions. Such research should help identify and remedy features that are negatively affecting student learning.