Online and Hybrid Learning

New Report Critical of Virtual and Blended Schools

A new national report found that participation in online and blended learning schools is increasing, despite evidence that students are struggling in them and performance and school outcomes are consistently below traditional public schools.

The National Education Policy Center’s fourth annual report, released Wednesday, found that students enrolled in virtual and blended schools are performing poorer in key subject areas — such as English Language Arts and math — than their counterparts at brick-and-mortar schools.

Also, students at blended (or hybrid) schools, which combine face-to-face instruction in classrooms with virtual instruction, scored the same as or worse than those at virtual schools full-time on performance measures, according to the report. This may be owing to the higher number of low-income students in blended schools, compared to virtual schools, the report said.

Despite the poor results, the study also found that enrollment has increased in virtual and blended schools over the last few years. The authors of this year’s “Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review” argued that the enrollment growth has been caused by vigorous advertising campaigns, corporate lobbying and favorable legislation.

Gary Miron, professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University and Charisse Gulosino, assistant professor of leadership and policy studies at the University of Memphis, are the authors of the report. The National Education Policy Center is located at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education.

“Although increasing numbers of parents and students are choosing virtual or blended schools,” the report stated in its executive summary, “little is known about the inner workings of these schools.”

Miron added in an interview, “The model’s not working. There has to be more personalized instruction with students. Kids are mostly working on their own. They don’t have any supervision at home. You have to have much more student-to-teacher contact.”

The report includes a comprehensive directory of the country’s full-time virtual and blended learning schools. In 2013-2014, 447 full-time virtual schools enrolled close to 262,000 students, and 87 blended schools enrolled 26,155 students. Thirty-three states had full-time virtual schools, and 16 states had blended schools. Those numbers have been increasing, the authors wrote, and data from the 2014-2015 school year has been included in the study, Miron said.

For-profit, educational management organizations (EMOs) dominate the full-time, virtual school sector and are increasing their market share, the report indicated. However, they are playing less of a role in the blended sector.

“Instead of investing in math teachers, they’re investing in marketing,” Miron said of the virtual schools operated by EMOs. “Rather than improving the quality of their programs, they think it’s more cost beneficial to spend money on advertising so they can replace all these bodies.”

Some other key findings are:

  • Relative to national public school enrollment, virtual schools have substantially fewer minority students and fewer low-income students. In relation to national averages, blended schools have a similar proportion of low-income students, but a substantially higher average of Latino students.
  • Of the 121 virtual schools for which data were available, 22 (18.2 percent) had proficiency rates in English Language Arts and mathematics above the state average; 81.8 percent had proficiency rates below state averages.
  • In independent virtual schools and those operated by for-profit EMOs, only 16.7 percent and 14.3 percent, respectively, had proficiency rates above state averages. That means 83.3 percent and 85.7 percent had proficiency rates below state averages.
  • The on-time (or four-year) graduation rate for full-time virtual schools and blended schools was half the national average: 40.6 percent for virtual schools, 37.4 percent for blended schools, and 81 percent for the nation as a whole. The graduation rates for virtual schools have worsened by 3 percentage points over the past few years, even as graduation rates in the country have been improving by 1 percentage point each year.

The authors stated that their findings align with reports from state auditors and new national studies by other organizations, such as a recent set of studies by the Walton Foundation. (The Walton Foundation has been a staunch supporter of online charters but admitted there’s substantial work to be done in light of some dismal performance results.)

The report offers some key recommendations, including:

  • Policymakers should slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor outcomes have been identified and addressed.
  • Oversight authorities should specify and enforce sanctions for virtual and blended schools failing to demonstrate that they are doing a good job with their students.
  • Policymakers should require virtual and blended schools to devote more resources to instruction, particularly by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers.
  • State agencies should ensure that virtual and blended schools fully report data related to the population of students they serve and the teachers they employ.
  • State and federal policymakers should promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual and blended schools.
  • Policymakers and other stakeholders should support more research to identify which policy options — especially those impacting funding and accountability mechanisms — are most likely to promote successful virtual and blended schools.

“We have to regulate this,” Miron said. “It’s not working like it should. We still believe this is the future, but in terms of instruction, they have to devote more resources to personalized instruction.”

The full, 38-page report is available at nepc.colorado.edu.

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