Policy | News

Virtual Schools Come Under Scrutiny

The latest volley across the bow of virtual schools has been fired with the release of a new report by The Center for Public Education, a research arm of the National School Boards Association.

In "Searching for the Reality of Virtual Schools," the researchers expressed acceptance of the fact that the use of online courses is accelerating in America at the same time they bemoaned a lack of clarity around virtual school costs, outcomes, and accountability. However, at least two observers from the virtual school side of education wondered if the report isn't really just a chance for public school advocates to take potshots at alternatives to traditional education.

"What is really notable about this issue is not what is known but more what is not known," said Center Director Patte Barth. "To begin with, it's very hard to determine how much it costs to provide different online learning opportunities. We've found that the lines of accountability for student progress are frequently blurred. Most importantly, there's not a lot of data on student results. What little we did find does not tell a good story. In fact, it shows overall that students in online full-time virtual schools aren't performing nearly as well as their peers in traditional brick and mortar schools."

Barth said the Center developed the report because it was seeing a lot of activity at the state and local levels to extend virtual learning opportunities for elementary and secondary students and because it wanted to "help legislators and school leaders to make sure when they provide online learning opportunities that their students will get the benefits--instead of what we fear is happening: students getting lost in cyber space."

The report focused specifically on two segments served by virtual schools: those students taking a full-time course load online and those doing blended learning, a combination of the student with the computer and with some adult supervision, very often in a traditional classroom.

Amazing Growth
Even though only about 250,000 students were enrolled full time in virtual schools in 2010-2011--a small fraction of the 52 million students served by public schools in this country--that count grew by 200,000 from the year prior. The report stated that 40 states have passed "significant" online learning policies; that's a 19 percent increase from the year before. Also, 30 states and the District of Columbia have created state virtual schools. Four states require students to take an online course for graduation.

Three-quarters of school districts that offer distance learning, according to the report, get their online courses from outside providers. These include post-secondary institutions and for-profit providers. The two largest of the latter group, K12 Inc. and Connections Academy, together enrolled half of all full-time online students in 2010-2011.

One of the reasons it's hard to get a handle on the merits of online learning, the report stated, was that it comes from so many different sources. Virginia, for example, lists 19 service providers approved by the state to enter into contracts with school boards to deliver courses. The list includes individual school districts, higher education providers, non-profits, and for-profit companies. Whereas school districts delivering traditional classes follow state rules for collecting data regarding attendance and student progress, which tend to be uniform to some extent, the same isn't true across all of those various providers, the report suggested.

"There doesn't seem to be much of an infrastructure supporting it," noted Barth. "The data collection isn't as clean as it is in traditional schools. Seventy percent of districts report that they've recorded attendance in some way in online platforms. Only half monitor login and activity spent online. It's hard to imagine a classroom that doesn't take attendance every day. We don't have that support yet universally in the online environment."

Funding Conundrum
Likewise, there's large variation on funding for online learning. According to the Center, funding ranges from 70 percent to 100 percent of state and local per-pupil rates. Variations surface in multiple areas.

For example, some states pay a per-pupil funding amount equal to what the student would have received if he or she had remained in the local school district. In that case, the report pointed out, because the virtual school's actual per-pupil costs are the same no matter what district the student comes from, it's possible that the state is providing more funding than necessary for that virtual student.

In other states, the online per-pupil fee is based on where the virtual school is located, which, the report noted, raises the possibility of a virtual school setting up shop in districts with the highest per-pupil funding amounts no matter where the students actually reside.

An added layer of complexity is determining just how many students are enrolled in a virtual school. Colorado funds, for instance, are distributed to the schools based on enrollment as of Oct. 1. However, the report stated, "between 30 [percent] and 50 percent of those students do not remain in the virtual school throughout the year. So virtual charters in Colorado are receiving funds for students they are not educating."

The report's researchers recommended "greater oversight and accountability to ensure virtual charter schools receive funding for those students they are actually educating." But even then, they added, figuring out just how much it actually costs to provide a virtual education is a mystery. "In many cases, taxpayers do not exactly know how their tax dollars are being spent. This should concern anyone involved with education."

Jeff Kwitowski, senior vice president of public affairs for virtual school provider K12 Inc., while acknowledging that states and districts are still learning how to structure their virtual school agreements, also pointed out that every online school is different--"just like traditional schools." Costs and funding are different in each state, he said. "The 'actual costs' of educating a student in a traditional school varies in every state, every district, every school. There is no single number. If there were, costs and funding would be the same in Utah as it is in New Jersey, and we know that is not the case. What we do know is that online schools receive about 30 [percent] to 40 percent less in total funding than traditional schools. The national average for online schools is about $6,500 to $7,000 per student compared to the national average of over $10,000 per student for traditional schools."

Referencing the Colorado situation, Kwitowski added that "as a matter of good sound public policy, states should move to an average daily attendance or average daily membership rather than a count date for all schools, so that students have greater opportunities to move from one school to another if the school that they're in is not working for them."

"School districts that choose to contract with K12 determine the size and [scope] of their online school program," Kwitowski said. "In some states, where funding formulas aren't compatible to operating online schools, many districts are not able to provide online schools. If the funding is too low, districts will not offer online schools, even if there is a need and desire to offer it. That is why it is important for policymakers to provide fair, equitable, and sustainable funding to enable all school districts and charter schools the full opportunities to provide a range of online school programs to serve students' needs."

Measuring Impact
The report also took on the challenge of figuring out what the impact on student results is. "Very difficult to come by," said Barth. Citing a 2010 study by the Department of Education, she noted, "They concluded that the jury is very much out on what it means for elementary and secondary students. They didn't find enough research to make a statement one way or another about K-12 students."

Barth added that a 2011 Stanford study of eight virtual schools in Pennsylvania showed that "all eight performed significantly worse than brick and mortar schools students would have attended." That kind of outcome surfaced elsewhere too, she said. In Minnesota, full-time online students were more likely to drop out. Those in grades 4 through 8 were making half the progress as peers in traditional schools in math. In Ohio and Colorado "many virtual schools were reporting high school completion rates well under 50 percent."

In those cases where studies showed positive results, Barth said, "They were at the elementary level, suggesting adult supervision is a factor of the success of students in the online environment."

Kwitowski, citing an April 2012 report published by K12 on its academic performance trends, suggested that analysis of student outcomes should take under consideration how many of them are first-year virtual students. "Increasingly, first year students are coming in one or more grade levels behind in critical subjects [such as] reading and math. In many cases, high school-age students are coming in behind in credits and not on track to graduate on time because they were failing in their local school. It's very challenging to get students who come in below grade level to proficiency in less than one year, and back on track to graduate in four years when they are credit-deficient."

In many cases, he added, parents are using virtual schools for "short-term solutions." "They're not for most students, but they are a great fit for a lot of kids who have struggled in traditional schools, especially kids with special needs, advanced learners, kids who have been bullied, kids with medical conditions, where the classroom has not succeeded for them. and they need this option to succeed."

Likewise, Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the longest-running online school in the country and one profiled heavily in the report, contradicted the broad brushstroke suggestion that its student outcomes are somehow worse than those found in traditional schools. "[We] take accountability for learning very seriously," the school wrote in an e-mail statement. "Driven by a performance-based funding model, FLVS only receives funding for students who successfully complete courses. Our students take the same required state and national tests as traditional school students. In Florida, student mastery of learning is measured through End of Course (EOC) Exams. Currently, there are state-created exams for key subject areas (Algebra 1, Biology, and Geometry, to date) that allow us to evaluate learning outcomes. For the school year 2010-2011, the Algebra 1 results released by the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) showed that FLVS students outperformed the state by 10 percent. Biology and Geometry results will not be released by the FLDOE until late 2012. In addition, our 2011 AP Exam results revealed that FLVS students outperformed the state in overall averages by 12 percent and were equal to the global overall averages."

FLVS pointed out that its teachers are evaluated based on the same Florida Educator Accomplished Practices standards as traditional instructors. "Florida Virtual School is proud to be the leading statewide public virtual school in the nation based on our policies, programs, high standards of accountability, and exceptional teacher-student interaction. We make every effort to ensure our children receive a high quality, technology-based education that provides them with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed."

3 Recommendations
The Center's report offers three recommendations to state and district policymakers:

  • Look before you leap. "Demand more information if you are looking into an online opportunity, which we all will be," said Barth.
  • Monitor progress closely and frequently. "The data we found on student outcomes on virtual schools should be sounding alarms," she declared. "If you are going into that area, make sure you have good data collection systems in place and sufficient monitoring of students to gauge their progress and make sure they're on track.
  • Follow the money. "We need better accountability for the money, where it goes, how much it costs, how it's being spent, and how that leads to accountability for student results," said Barth.

Noting that the National School Board Association has been a leader in "pushing for better use of technology," the latest report should be considered not as an indictment of virtual schools but as a "note of caution," Barth said. "Because something is working in one high school somewhere doesn't mean you can rapidly expand it and expect to have the same results. You certainly can't expect to expand it without data collection systems in place to know whether it really is getting the results you want. And you have to be able to keep track of the students."

"Yes, we are very much in favor of [virtual education.]," she added. "It will happen. It needs to happen. When it does happen well, it really does propel learning in ways that aren't possible in traditional settings."