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Report Recommends Curtailing Virtual School Growth Until Quality Issues Can Be Addressed

Lawmakers should stop the proliferation of virtual schools until significant quality issues have been addressed. That's just one recommendation from a report released this week that evaluated the growth and performance of full-time virtual schools in the United States.

The report, Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence, issued by the University of Colorado Boulder's National Education Policy Center, examined the state of online virtual schools — their numbers, their student populations and certain performance measures.

Among the findings:

  • 30 percent of full-time virtual schools did not receive state accountability or performance ratings;
  • Only 36 percent of those schools that did receive ratings had "academically acceptable ratings";
  • The on-time graduation rate for students at full-time virtual schools (43.8 percent) was a little more than half the national average (76.8 percent).

The report examined 338 active, full-time virtual schools that were part of state or local public education systems in the 2012-2013 school year. (See our related story for enrollment statistics.) While a minority of those schools was operated by private education management organizations (44 percent), the bulk of the student population in those virtual schools was being served by EMOs, about 70 percent by for-profit EMOs and 2 percent by nonprofit EMOs. Additionally, virtual schools that were not directly managed by EMOs often contracted services out to EMOs, services such as curriculum or online software. Just two companies — K12 Inc. and Connections Academy — were responsible for 53 percent of the entire full-time virtual student population in the United States in 2012-2013.

Those virtual schools operated by for-profits had several performance issues worth noting.

  • They had the highest student-to-teacher ratios, about 37 students per teacher on average, compared with 17.3 for nonprofit EMOs and 15 in traditional schools;
  • Some virtual schools had student-teacher ratios as low as 1-to-1, while others had more than 200 students per teacher;
  • In 2011-2012, the last year in which most states reported adequate yearly progress, there was a 21.5 percentage point difference in AYP results for EMO-operated virtual schools compared with EMO-operated brick-and-mortar schools (29.6 percent for virtual schools versus 51.1 percent for traditional schools);
  • That same year, there was a 28.4 percentage point difference in AYP results between all full-time virtual schools meeting AYP and all brick-and-mortar schools (23.6 percent meeting AYP for virtual schools versus 52 percent for traditional schools);
  • In the latest school year, only California and Iowa virtual schools reported AYP, and they averaged 15 percent;
  • In states that reported measures other than AYP, only 23 percent of full-time virtual schools received an "acceptable annual accountability rating by state education authorities," according to the report.

"One should be cautious in drawing conclusions from such an imperfect measure, and one should be cautious in interpreting differences among groups of schools," according to the authors. "At the same time, it appears evident that extremely large differences, such as the 22 percentage point difference between full-time virtual schools and brick-and-mortar schools meeting AYP, warrants further attention."

The report's authors also cautioned that there simply isn't enough solid information available on virtual schools, and more research needs to be conducted to get statistics that meet more rigorous standards.

The authors recommended that state and federal agencies clearly identify virtual schools in their datasets to allow further research and "ensure that virtual schools fully report data related to the population of students they serve and the teachers they employ." They also recommended that policymakers "promote efforts to design new outcomes measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools."

The full 74-page report, with further recommendations, statistics and methodology, can be freely accessed at nepc.colorado.edu.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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