VIRTUAL SCHOOLS IN THE U.S.: A Comprehensive Analysis (2015 Update)

Record: Alex Molnar, ed., Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2015: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2014). [Available Here]

Introduction: This report is the third in an annual series published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC). The first report in 2013 was followed by the 2014 report, which was reviewed on this blog here. If you have not done so before, I recommend reading the in-depth 2014 review first because this post will only cover the information that has been updated for 2015.

The 2015 report is very similar in findings and structure to the 2014 report. The key word here is “continues,” as practically every trend observed in 2014 has continued.

Section one summary: Section one was written by Luis Huerta of Teachers College, Columbia University and Sheryl Rankin Shafer, an independent scholar.  This section consists of recent legislative activity relative to online schooling. Data was compiled from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Legislative Tracking Database. The authors 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. In 2014, 131 bills were considered in 36 states; 38 were enacted, 62 failed and 31 were pending. So, the amount of legislation has remained constant over time.

In the first section on funding and governance, they discuss the continuous problem of profiteering by virtual schools. While some states like IL, MI, MO, and VA have moved to reduce funding for virtual schools, Huerta and Shafer attribute this more to political motivations than reliable evidence. No states have thoroughly determined what it costs to give a quality online education, nor have they done an extensive analysis of the cost differences between virtual and traditional schools.

Regarding accountability, several state legislatures have moved to improve virtual schools’ accountability through audits. Huerta and Shafer talk specifically of a 2014 audit on distance and online education programs in Utah that found that several programs were unable to produce attendance records, that some contractors’ courses and curriculua did not follow Utah state standards, and that some programs failed to verify the instructor’s appropriate Utah license. Some states have approached virtual school accountability challenges methodologically with legislation that calls for moratoriums, task forces, and commissions charged with wider assessment and evaluation of virtual learning models. Such legislation has been introduced in eight states; however, it passed in only three of the eight (CO, IL and NC), while five bills in other states either failed or are pending. One new trend in 2014 was several proposals that would require performance-based accountability of online education providers.

Profiteering continues with online schooling, and the biggest culprit, K12, has seen a 120% increase in net profits since last year.

Several legislative trends relating to the quality and quantity of virtual instruction that emerged or continued in 2014 included: course-level enrollment, blended learning, dual enrollment, proficiency-based learning, and seat time in the virtual education setting. A March 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education complicated this discussion when it concluded that many traditional high schools do not offer the breadth and depth of courses necessary for college preparation and admittance. For example, only 50% of American high schools offered calculus. Where these courses are lacking, many turn to online providers in the form of blended-learning or a full-time switch to online schooling.

The final topic in section one is teachers and teacher accountability. State legislatures have made little progress on the important issues that need to be addressed such as recruiting, training, evaluating and retaining effective teachers. There was virtually no legislation in this area. While some states addressed aspects of teacher effectiveness, states are not tailoring the legislation to the unique challenges of the online environment.

Section two summary: Section two surveys the research literature available on virtual education. As last year, it was written by Michael K. Barbour of Sacred Heart University. Barbour finds little change in the state of affairs from last year. The research base continues to be weak.

While most of the information is similar to last year, he summarizes the research more succinctly through the use of tables, and the overall structure of the section has changed. This organization is helpful, but there is nevertheless extremely little new research on virtual education. Particularly with finance and governance, Barbour rearranged things, but there is no substantial difference from last year. The conclusion is still that virtual schools cost about 65-75% of traditional schooling.

Next Barbour moves to instructional program quality. Students in online schools continue to lag behind students in traditional schools. Most states do not have good systems in place to evaluate online schools.

One of the new sections is research regarding teacher quality. There is some research in this area, but much of it continues to be context specific or methodologically limited. Teacher quality remains an issue for online schools because less than 2% of teacher education programs across the country provided any content related to virtual schooling, and less than 40% of online teachers reported receiving professional development before they started teaching online. Barbour then discusses several possible solutions to this problem, like the creation of an online teacher specialization. The iNACOL (National Standards for Quality Online Teaching) were adopted in 2007, but they were not based in research like they should have been.

The final part of section two discusses the profiteering of public funds by for-profit corporations and whether this affects the quality of education. As last year, things remain unclear, and there are only a few limited examples. The only consistent trend remains the high number of virtual charter schools rated unacceptable.

Barbour ends by reiterating that without quality research, legislators cannot make informed decisions. He calls for additional research in all of the areas he discussed and says that legislators should slow support for virtual schools until there is more research.

Section three summary: Section three provides raw data on the number of online schools in operation, the providers that run them, and the students who attend them. Gary Miron of Western Michigan University and Charisse Gulosino have returned to write the section.

There are now 400 full-time virtual schools that enrolled close to 261,000 students as opposed to the 338 schools and 243,000 students in the previous report. This represents a 7.4% increase in enrollment since last year and a 30.5% increase since 2013. Growth has slowed, but a 7.4% increase is still notable.

Of these schools, 40.2% were run by private education management organizations (EMOs). These EMO schools represented 70.7% of all enrollments. Charter schools accounted for 52% of the schools and 84% of enrollment. K12, the largest for-profit EMO, operated 99 full-time virtual schools with 96,000 students as opposed to 81 schools and 86,000 students last year. Their closest competitor, Connections Academy LLC, operated 29 schools with 59,000 students as opposed to 25 schools and 41,000 students last year. These companies continue to increase the average size of their already extremely large schools. The average size of for-profit schools is still much bigger than schools run by non-profits (1,143 on average vs. 350), though both of these numbers have fallen since last year due to the creation of new schools.

Moving to student characteristics, most online schoolers remain whiter than the national average, but the percentage of whites has decreased from 75% to 70%. Blacks increased the most of any ethnic group at 2%, so now they represent 12.5% of virtual schoolers. The average virtual schooler also remains more female (52.5%), less poor (35.1% qualifying for free lunch vs. 45.4% nationally), less likely to be designated special needs (7.2% vs. 13.1% nationally), and less likely to be English Language Learner (.1% vs. 9.6% nationally). Due to inconsistent data, many of the statistics remain unchanged from last year (student-teacher-ratios, for example).

In 2013-14, 41.1% of virtual schools were rated acceptable as opposed to 34.2% in 2012-13. Independent virtual schools earned acceptable ratings at a much higher rate than those managed by for-profit EMOs: 48.8% and 27.6% respectively. Over the past three years, independent virtual schools have steadily increased their performance: 32.6%, 36.7% and 48.8%. Neither for-profit or non-profit EMO schools have shown steady movement in either direction. One interesting trend that Miron and Gulosino note is that district-operated virtual schools outperformed virtual charters by 7% (44.9% vs. 37.6%). However, while virtual schools appear to be making academic process overall, approximately 28% of virtual schools consistently lack state ratings and are not included in this data.

Finally, graduation rates at virtual schools remain very similar (43.05% compared to 74.7% nationally). Independent virtual schools again had the highest on-time graduation rate at 52.2%. Non-profit and for-profit virtual schools had graduation rates of 38.8% and 39%, respectively. Virtual schools operated by EMOs continue to lag significantly behind their counterparts in on-time graduation.

Miron and Gulosino conclude section three with a small discussion of their findings. Full-time virtual schooling continues to grow rapidly, and for-profit EMOs like K12 still dominate the market. Interestingly, however, some of the largest virtual schools operated by K12 have indicated the desire to part ways with the corporation. If this happens, it could cause some drastic changes. The authors repeatedly call for the slowed growth of full-time virtual schools until researchers and policymakers improve some of the problems with it. They say that growth should be guided by school performance and not the desires of EMOs to increase profits.

Appraisal: The authors have once again put together a fantastic report on virtual schools. Even though much remains unchanged since last year, it is important to remain up-to-date in the quickly evolving world of virtual schooling. Their data, sometimes lacking, is the best extant on the subject, and their hard work in compiling it all should be applauded. However, unfortunately it appears that legislators are ignoring most of their suggestions. Let us hope that their data may finally be acted upon in the upcoming year.

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