NEPC Report: Time to 'Hit Pause Button' on Virtual Schools

distance learning

Do online schools deserve their reputation for expanding student choice, providing more tailored approaches to learning and making public education more cost-efficient? No way, according to a new three-part research brief released by the National Education Policy Center.

A team of researchers from Western Michigan University, Touro University California, Columbia University and the University of Maryland assessed the topics of performance, research studies and legislative oversight of virtual and blended-learning schools — and found little to be enthusiastic about.

The first section, which examined the characteristics and performance of full-time, publicly funded K-12 virtual schools, found that even as enrollment grows, the schools "continue to perform poorly."

As the report enumerated, 501 full-time virtual schools enrolled 297,712 students in 2017-2018, and 300 blended schools enrolled 132,960 students. Enrollments in virtual schools increased by more than 2,000 students between 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, and enrollments in blended learning schools increased by over 16,000 during this same period. The fully virtual versions typically enrolled far fewer minority students and low-income students compared to national enrollment percentages. For blended schools, those run by nonprofit education management organizations (EMOs) had a higher proportion of low-income and Hispanic students than their traditional public-school counterparts.

In the area of performance, those virtual schools run by for-profit EMOs fared the worst. Where performance ratings were available, just 30 percent of schools run by for-profit EMOs achieved acceptable school performance ratings, compared to district-operated schools (where the achievement rate was 57 percent). And whereas the national average rate of graduation was 84 percent, virtual schools had a graduation rate of 50 percent and blended schools had a rate of 61.5 percent.

The second section, which explored scholarly research on virtual and blended schools, discovered that where research was available, much of it was "atheoretical, methodologically questionable, contextually limited and overgeneralized." In other words, the researchers wrote, there was little of value "in guiding policy."

In a chart summarizing the effectiveness of virtual schools (including a number by NEPC itself), just one study out of dozens found anything positive to say about learning outcomes. As the authors concluded, "the evidence in the literature consistently shows that students enrolled in virtual schools perform at lower rates compared to their face-to-face counterparts." The one research project that found positive results had been produced by "advocacy organizations supportive of charter schooling and school choice or the for-profit corporations that operate many of these schools."

The final section offered an overview of recent state laws attempting to generate policy on virtual schools. These bills, for the most part, have tried to address accountability and governance structures and curbing the presence of for-profit virtual schools. However, the researchers pointed out, "there is little evidence that legislative actions are being informed by available research on the performance of virtual schools."

While the authors offered numerous recommendations in each section of the report, the main point was this: that policymakers should "hit the pause button" on further expansion of virtual schools until the field understands how to address their poor performance.

The report, "Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019," is openly available on the NEPC website.

About the Author

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