Major virtual schools report uncovers underperforming schools, recommends halt of their expansion

In the past decade, virtual education has moved quickly to the top of the K-12 public education reform agenda, with proponents arguing that technology revolutionizes teaching and learning at a reduced cost — despite a lack of substantive research to back up those claims.

The lack of research on virtual teaching and learning led the National Education Policy Center, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, to compile the first in a series of objective analyses regarding virtual schools.

The first report is titled “Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence,” and is edited by Alex Molnar, a research professor with the University of Colorado Boulder. Contributing authors to the reports include Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, Luis Huerta of Columbia University’s Teacher College, Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, and Larry Cuban of Stanford University.

There are new 347 full-time virtual schools enrolling nearly 200,000 students, with 68 percent of the schools operated by Education Management Organizations. There are 30 states and the District of Columbia that allow full-time virtual schools, with even more states allowing or requiring courses to be delivered online to traditional public school students.

The reports uncovered several unnerving facts, including that full-time virtual schools significantly underperformed on Adequate Yearly Progress compared to traditional brick-and-mortar and charter schools. In the 2010-11 school year, only 23.6 percent of virtual schools made AYP compared to 52 percent for traditional and charter schools.

In terms of student demographics, virtual schools also serve very different student populations that traditional or charter schools.

Three-quarters of the students in virtual schools are white, compared to the national mean of 54 percent. Black students account for 10.3 percent of the virtual school enrollment, compared to 16.5 percent for all public schools. The gap is even wider for Hispanic students, which is surprising given the large presence of virtual schools in states with large Hispanic populations like Arizona, Florida and California.

The number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch in virtual schools is 10-percentage points lower than all public schools — 35.1 percent compared to 45.4 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of students with disabilities being served by virtual schools is half the national average — 7.2 percent compared to 13.1 percent.

Despite the claim that virtual schools can provide quality learning at a reduced cost, there is no funding formula based on the actual costs of operating virtual schools. Virtual schools have lower costs associated with teacher salaries and benefits, facilities and maintenance, transportation, food service and other in-person services — compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts — although some virtual schools receive the same amount of funding.

The reports also raised alarms regarding teacher certification and licensure requirements, noting those should be re-evaluated so teachers receive the support they need to instruct students through online learning. In that same vein, more research is needed to show how students acquire skills, attitudes and habits of learning online.                                          

In light of evidence of underperforming schools, and lack of research into how to provide quality learning online, the reports’ authors suggest policymakers should suspend requirements that students take online courses to graduate from high school and that policymakers should slow or stop the growth of these virtual schools until more research and accountability measures can be put into place.

Along with Molnar, Miron, Huerta, King Rice, and Cuban, contributors to this study included professors Sheryl Shafer of Teachers College, Columbia University, Brian Horvitz of Western Michigan University, and Charisse Gulosino at the University of Memphis.

The full report can be found at http://www.greatlakescenter.org.