Online Education

Report: Virtual Schools Expand in U.S. Despite Poor Performance

Policymakers should focus on improving academic performance, promoting needed research and developing policy in critical areas before permitting more virtual schools, report says.


Virtual schools have expanded and proliferated in the United States, despite poor performance, lack of research support and inadequate policies, according to a report released this week by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).

The three-part report, “Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017,” provides a detailed inventory of full-time virtual schools in the United States and their performance, an exhaustive review of the literature on virtual education and its implications for virtual school practices, and a detailed review and analysis of state-level policymaking related to such schools.

The growth of full-time virtual schools has been fueled by policies that expand school choice and that provide market incentives attractive to for-profit companies, the report said. Indeed, large virtual schools operated by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs) now dominate this sector and are increasing their market share.

Although virtual schools benefit from the common but largely unsupported assumption that the approach is cost-effective and educationally superior — or equal — to brick and mortar schools, there are numerous problems associated with virtual schools, the report said. School performance measures such as assessments, for both full-time completely virtual and full-time blended virtual schools, suggest that they are not as successful as traditional public schools.

The virtual education research base is not adequate to support many current virtual school practices, according to the report. More than 20 years after the first virtual schools began, there continues to be a deficit of empirical, longitudinal research to guide the practice and policy of virtual education.

Also, state policymaking in several key areas — including accountability, teacher preparation and school governance — continues to lag.

An analysis of state policies suggests that policymakers continue to struggle to reconcile traditional funding structures, governance and accountability systems, instructional quality and staffing demands with the organizational models and instructional methods associated with virtual schooling.

Accountability challenges linked to virtual schools include designing and implementing governance structures capable of accounting for expenditures and practices that directly benefit students.

The report’s policy recommendations include:

  • The specification and enforcement of sanctions for virtual and blended schools if they fail to improve student performance;
  • The creation of long-term programs to support independent research on and evaluation of virtual schooling, particularly full-time virtual schooling; and
  • The development of new funding formulas based on the actual costs of operating virtual schools.

The National Education Policy Center is based at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. To view the full report on virtual schools, visit the NEPC website.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].