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Report questions efficacy of full-time virtual schools

“The current weak measures of effectiveness need updating to measure true student success based on outcomes,” said one online learning advocate.

A report released last week by university researchers is the latest to question the academic merits of full-time virtual schools run by K12 Inc.—and by extension, the promise of cyber education in general.

According to the report, students enrolled in schools run by K12—the nation’s largest virtual school company—have lower scores in math and reading on end-of-year exams than students in traditional schools, and parents are pulling their students out in droves. K12 disputes the report’s findings, saying they fail to measure student growth over time and are based on flawed research methods.

The report, titled “Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools,” was released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado. It comes on the heels of a recent class-action lawsuit against K12 claiming that the company misled investors (see “Online learning provider K12 faces class-action lawsuit”).

“Our findings are clear,” said Gary Miron, an NEPC fellow and the report’s lead author. “Children who enroll in a K12 Inc. cyber school, who receive full-time instruction in front of a computer instead of in a classroom with a live teacher and other students, are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. These children are also more likely to move between schools or leave school altogether—and the cyber school is less likely to meet federal education standards.”

He added: “Computer-assisted learning has tremendous potential. But, at present, our research shows that virtual schools such as those operated by K12 are not working effectively. States should not grow full-time virtual schools until they have evidence of success. Most immediately, we need to better understand why the performance of these schools suffers and how it can be improved.”

In analyzing federal and state data sets for revenue, expenditures, and student performance, the report’s authors studied all of K12’s 48 full-time virtual schools. Key findings include:

  • Math scores for K12’s students are 14 to 36 percent lower than scores for other students in the states in which the company operates schools.
  • Only 2.7 percent of K12’s schools reported meeting Adequate Yearly Progress standards in 2010-11, compared to 52 percent for brick-and-mortar schools in the nation as a whole.
  • Student attrition is exceptionally high in K12 and other virtual schools. Many families appear to approach the virtual schools as a temporary service: Data in K12’s own school performance report indicate that 31 percent of parents intend to keep their students enrolled for a year or less, and more than half intend to keep their student enrolled for two years or less.
  • K12’s schools spend more on overall instructional costs than comparison schools—including the cost of computer hardware and software—but noticeably less on teachers’ salaries and benefits.
  • K12 enrolls students with disabilities at rates moderately below public school averages, although this enrollment has been increasing, but the company spends half as much per pupil as charter schools overall spend on special-education instruction—and third of what districts spend on special-education instruction.

“Our research highlights a number of significant issues at K12 schools, and we recognize that these issues are also of concern at other full-time virtual schools,” said Miron. “We need a better understanding of how this new teaching and learning model can be most effective, so that full-time virtual schools can better serve students and the public school system as a whole.”

Bryan Flood, senior vice president of public affairs for K12, said NEPC’s report “contains serious errors and flaws, all of which certainly put the accuracy of any of its conclusions in doubt.”

For instance, “a school that K12 manages in Georgia with nearly 10,000 students was omitted from the data set, while several schools we do not manage—with more than 5,000 students enrolled overall—were inaccurately included in the study,” Flood said. There also were errors in the data about special-education students and those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, he said.

Flood added that the report provides no evidence to support its claim that students are falling further behind in math and reading, because the test scores of students from prior years when they were enrolled in a brick-and-mortar school weren’t provided.

“K12-managed schools tend to enroll students who are behind academically,” he said. “Rather than simply using static, end-of-the-year state test data, K12 administers the Scantron Performance Series exam to students in grades 3-10 as a way to gauge growth over the academic year. Student growth is compared to the Scantron norm group, which is comprised of thousands of students who represent the national demographics in terms of socio-economic status and ethnicity. As the Trends report demonstrates, our students have consistently outperformed the norm group in the majority of grade levels in both math and reading.”

Flood also said the NEPC is funded in part by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and that the policy center “poses as an independent think tank, but in fact serves as the policy and research arm of the interest groups that consistently oppose charter schools, online charter schools, and parent choice in public education.”

To see K12’s full response to specific points of NEPC’s report, click here.

NEPC released its report in conjunction with the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., on July 18, during a forum to which Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), was invited.

Patrick, a former director of educational technology for the U.S. Department of Education, had not had the chance to read NEPC’s report, but she agreed with its conclusion that more research on virtual schools is needed.

“As people push for new and different approaches to learning in this space, the current weak measures of effectiveness need updating to measure true student success based on outcomes,” Patrick told eSchool News. “There is a significant need to create new metrics of measuring student growth and promoting quality assurance that are outcomes-based for K-12 online learning.”

According to Patrick, this new approach to measures of performance for online learning programs should include proficiency, individual student growth, and success in closing the achievement gap—down to the student level.

There are also some specific hallmarks of what makes a successful online learning program, said Patrick. These include:

  • Excellent teaching and learning;
  • The ability to personalize instruction for each students’ needs with high-quality content and technology tools;
  • Regular feedback and monitoring of student progress and learning; and
  • A focus on data-driven instruction and accountability.

“There also needs to be an investment in federal research for K-12 online learning to fill in major gaps in knowledge, baseline data, and understanding about the field and support for research on effective models and approaches,” said Patrick.

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