VIRTUAL SCHOOLS IN THE U.S.: A Comprehensive Analysis, part 1

Record: Alex Molnar, ed., Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2014).  Available here.

Summary: This report is the second in a projected annual series of reports published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).  The first report was published in 2013 and can be read here.

The 2013 report chronicled the 311 full-time virtual schools enrolling around 200,000 students, 67% of whom were being taught in schools run by Education Managament Organizations, or EMOs.  The largest such organization is K12.  The report also found that despite serving a student population that has fewer Black, Latin@, poor, or special needs children than attend conventional public schools, academic achievement at virtual schools lagged significantly behind brick-and-mortars.  The report concluded with a series of research-based recommendations for reform of online school finance and governance, instructional quality, and teacher recruitment and retention that collectively would improve performance of virtual schools and limit profiteering by the EMOs.

This 2014 report picks up where the former report left off.  It contains three sections.  This post will summarize section one, which concerns recent legislative activity relative to online schooling.  Click here for a summary of section two, a survey of the academic research on virtual schools.  Click here for a summary of section three, which provides hard data about the number and type of online schools and the students who attend them. Sections two and three will be reviewed in subsequent posts.

Section one was written by Luis Huerta of Teachers College, Columbia University, Jennifer King Rice of the University of Maryland, and Sheryl Rankin Shafer, an independent scholar.  It consists in large part of a systematic survey of all of the bills put forth in every state of the country that bear on online primary and secondary schooling.  The goal was to determine to what degree legislative action has taken into consideration the policy recommendations of the the 2013 NEPC report.  Data was compiled from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Legislative Tracking Database.  They found that in 2012, 128 bills related to virtual schools had been considered in 31 states, with 41 being enacted and 87 failing.  IN 2013, 127 bills were considered in 25 states, 29 of which were enacted, 4 of which failed, and 92 of which were still pending at the time of writing.

The first topic considered is funding and governance.  Though the for-profit EMOs don’t want to admit it, independent researchers have concluded after much study that it costs only about 70% of what it costs conventional public schools to educate a child online.  This recognition, coupled to the thus-far very poor performance of students enrolled in online education on standardized tests, have caused some states in the past two years to reduce funding for online initiatives.  The authors chronicle recent developments in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia to illustrate, but they note that Georgia has actually increased funding and that Pennsylvania, despite 33 bills being offered to reform the process, has thus far failed to deal with funding problems.

As far as accountability, some states are beginning to create systems to hold virtual schools accountable for the tax monies they receive.  11 states considered bills that would increase accountability, but only 3 of these bills passed.  IN Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Illinois much needed measures are finally beginning to be implemented.

Perhaps the biggest problem with virtual learning is the profiteering being done by the EMOs, most notably K12.  In 2013 K12 operated 82 schools serving almost 88,000 students.  K12’s profits were $45 million, a 250% increase since 2008.  What does K12 do with all that extra money?  In 2013 they hired 153 lobbyists who work the aisles in 28 states, which goes a long way toward explaining why so many bills trying to increase accountability fail.  They also spend millions of taxpayer dollars to advertise for their schools ($21.5 million in the first 8 months of 2012 alone).  Though the authors report all of this dispassionately, it is clear from their text that they consider the biggest evil threatening the success of online learning to be the self-interested profiteering of K12.

Moving on to instruction program quality, the authors report that the emergence of the Common Core is having a big impact on virtual schools.  Common Core’s emphasis on competency rather than mere seat time theoretically works in the favor of online education, for the point is not logging hours but gaining expertise.  The problem so far, however, is that students in online schools have tended to perform very badly on measures of competence (tests).  The for-profit firms who lobby for and run virtual schools have conducted their own studies that find their students doing very well, but independent researchers have found these studies to be highly suspect on a number of methodologicoreal grounds.  More scientifically rigorous studies have found that students in online schools perform well below average when demographic variables are factored in.  Some states are finding this out the hard way.  In Tennessee, for example, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy had the very bottom score of all 1,300 elementary and middle schools in the state.

The final theme considered in section one is teachers.  Most states have done little to nothing in terms of training teachers specifically for online schooling.  Moreover, there does not yet exist a clear body of knowledge about best practices in online instruction for teachers to learn.  Some states, notably Minnesota and North Carolina, are making tentative steps toward improving  this aspect of the teacher issue.

Another problem with online teaching is teacher accountability.  While teachers in many brick and mortar public schools are subject to all sorts of accountability measures, online teachers are not.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that while there are aspects of the job teachers find appealing, the perks are outweighed by some serious structural problems.  In many states pupil-teacher ratios are far higher in virtual schools than in brick-and-mortars (e.g. 60:1 in Nevada compared to a school district average of 22:1).  One of the problems here is that the profit motive tempts EMOs to scrimp on teacher training and pay, leading to a lot of burnout and turnover.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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