Distance Learning

NEPC: Virtual Schools Aren't Working

A new study from the National Education Policy Center offers "overwhelming evidence" that virtual schools don't work. The research from NEPC found that these schools have high student-to-teacher ratios and are "excessively large." They also continue to underperform academically. However, those virtual schools operated by districts performed "far better" than charter-operated schools in performance ratings.

"Full-Time Virtual and Blended Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance," the sixth such annual report, offered a detailed overview and inventory of full-time virtual schools and blended learning or hybrid schools. Virtual schools deliver all curriculum and instruction via online means, with students and teachers in remote locations; blended schools use a mix of traditional face-to-face time in the classroom and online instruction.

While school performance measures for both kinds of schools suggest that they're less successful than traditional schools, they continue growing. Enrollment in virtual schools increased by 17,000 students and by 80,000 in blended learning schools between 2015-2016 and 2016-2017.

According to the report, the largest virtual schools are operated by for-profit education management organizations (EMOs); non-profit EMO and district-run virtual schools are usually small. For-profit EMO virtual schools had an average of 1,288 students; non-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 407 students; and districts unaffiliated with an EMO typically enrolled 411 students. The report also recorded average enrollment per school for two of the largest for-profit virtual and blended school operators; K12 Inc. had an average of 1,179 students in their virtual programs; and Connections Academy had an average of 1,483. While both kinds of EMOs — for-profit and non-profit — ran about a third of full-time virtual schools (36 percent), those schools enrolled nearly two-thirds of all virtual school students (62 percent).

On the blended side, the report stated that non-profit EMOs operated 30 percent of schools, and for-profit EMOs operated 23 percent. Nearly half (47 percent) of blended schools were independent and directly operated by the district. All blended schools enrolled an average of 394 students; those managed by for-profit EMOs enrolled an average of 409; those run by non-profit EMOs averaged 454 students; and the independent schools had average enrollment of 349. Researchers identified Rocketship Public Schools as the largest non-profit EMO in the blended segment, with 16 schools enrolling just over 7,700 students — almost 7 percent of all students in blended schools; Alliance College-Ready Public Schools operates 15.

Compared to national public school enrollment, the researchers reported that virtual schools had far fewer minority students or low-income students. However, blended schools enrolled a higher proportion of low-income students and Hispanic students. Non-profit EMOs enrolled a substantially higher share of low-income students than the other types. The proportion of special education students in virtual schools was close to the national average, while blended schools enrolled half as many children with disabilities (6 percent) relative to the national average (13 percent).

A big difference between a traditional public school and the virtual and hybrid kinds is the student-teacher ratio. Whereas public schools had an average ratio of 16 students per one teacher, for virtual schools it was 45 students per teacher; and at hybrid schools the ratio was 32-to-1.

In the area of school performance, the researchers faced a limitation. A number of states have "frozen" accountability systems or are running new systems that don't include an overall rating. As a result, overall school performance grades assigned by state boards of education were only available for 15 of 38 states with virtual and blended schools. That represented just 39 percent of virtual schools and 24 percent of blended schools.

Overall, the report noted, 36 percent of full-time virtual schools and 43 percent of blended schools were given acceptable performance ratings. Those virtual schools operated by districts performed "far better" than charter-operated schools in school performance ratings (54 percent compared to 21 percent). Also, while the national on-time graduation rate is 83 percent, it's just 51 percent for virtual schools and 49.5 percent in blended schools.

The report advised policymakers to develop "fundamentally new models of full-time virtual and blended learning schools" in order to improve the outcomes.

Among the recommendations:

  • Specify a maximum student-teacher ratio to make sure learners get the support and attention they need;
  • Require that teachers — not parents — take primary responsibility for students' education;
  • Stipulate that public charter school boards be established before charter applications are submitted, and require that board to consider multiple bids for operation of new charter schools;
  • Promote transparency of school data and push back on EMOs that consider information regarding their school operations to be proprietary; and
  • Modify funding formulas to reduce per-pupil funding for students in virtual programs, to more closely reflect actual costs.

The report called out Florida's approach to resource allocation in virtual schools, which, the researchers explained, provides funding only for students who were enrolled throughout the entire school year and who passed state assessments.

The report also recommended more research in specific areas related to virtual and blended schools: special education, school and class size, teacher quality, funding, effective blended learning and more research on existing virtual and blended learning programs, especially those embedded in traditional schools.

NEPC is part of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. The researchers for this project were all affiliated with Western Michigan University.

The report is openly available on NEPC website.

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