Distance Learning

Student Outcomes for Online School System Go Toe-to-Toe with Traditional School Results

A new research study has found evidence that full-time students in one particular online public school, Connections Academy, can attain the same level of achievement as that offered at traditional public schools and that they may be better positioned to succeed than they would in other virtual schools. The research was conducted by Gatti Evaluation (hired by education technology company Pearson) over the course of the 2016-2017 school year, peer reviewed by SRI International and audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Pearson owns the company that runs the academy. The school system is a tuition-free online public school for 70,000 K-12 students in 27 states. (It also runs tuition programs for students in other states and countries.)

In an "Efficacy Research Report," which the company produces for its most widely used products, researchers explored questions related to the efficacy of a credit recovery program run by the company (they have a "high success rate") and what the "key characteristics" are of students enrolling in the system's schools (most commonly identified as one or more of the following: "academically advanced, academically struggling, experiencing health problems, experiencing bullying or seeking increased flexibility and choice").

But the big question was how well Connections Academy schools performed compared to "matched non-charter brick and mortar schools" and "matched virtual schools" on math and reading state assessments.

To do the analysis, the researchers matched student cohorts in each subject for each grade level beginning in 2014 or 2015. The cohorts were then compared on achievement for the subsequent years. Only students in those states with a Connections Academy school that had been operating for three or more years were included. Among other variables a tricky part of the comparison with traditional schools was meshing "mobility" rate. According to the report, because mobility is an important characteristic of academy students, there needed to be a match at the district rate on that for comparing success rates.

The analysis found that Connections Academy schools performed as well as brick-and-mortar schools on reading and math achievement; they also performed as well in math as students in other virtual schools; and they outperformed other virtual school students in reading by nearly eight percentage points.

While the schools in the academy uses state-certified teachers to develop learning plans for students, the model relies on the use of "learning coaches" to keep the student on track in day-to-day work. According to an FAQ, they're expected to "devote about five hours per day overseeing" student schoolwork in grades K-5. In subsequent grades, subject-specific teachers do a bit more work, and the coaches oversee schoolwork for two to three hours each day. By high school students are expected to work even more independently and coaches check in on schoolwork about 30 minutes a day. At every grade level students are expected to dedicate about 30 hours each week on school work.

Curriculum at Connections is a blend of online and offline resources. Pearson Connexus EMS is the primary source for digital content and serves as the course management platform. For students in need, most of the academies loan computers and provide subsidies for internet access.

The full Connections Academy Efficacy report is openly available on the Pearson website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.