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Are virtual schools failing students?

A new study questions how virtual schools can best serve students, given poor performance measures

A new in-depth analysis of school performance measures for full-time virtual and blended schools indicates they might not be as successful as traditional public schools.

The data comes from the National Education Policy Center’s (NEPC) Sixth Annual Report on Virtual Education, Full-Time Virtual and Blended Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance.

Virtual schools continued to under-perform academically, including in comparison to blended schools. Overall, 36.4 percent of full-time virtual schools and 43.1 percent of blended schools received acceptable performance ratings.

Despite the data, virtual school enrollment has continued to grow, particularly as more school districts open their own virtual schools, although those district-run virtual schools remain smaller in size.

District-run virtual schools seem to perform better than charter virtual schools, the study finds. District-operated schools saw acceptable performance ratings of 53.8 percent, compared to charter-operated schools with 20.7 percent.

On-time graduation rate data were available for 247 full-time virtual schools and 152 blended schools. The graduation rates of 50.7 percent in virtual schools and 49.5 percent in blended schools fell far short of the national average of 83 percent.

The study examines evidence suggesting that extremely large school sizes and large student-to-teacher ratios are key factors that explain the poor performance of these schools, and it offers three recommendations for policymakers:
• Specify a maximum student-teacher ratio for virtual and blended schools to ensure that all students receive adequate teacher support and attention.
• Specify that a proportion of public revenues be devoted to instructional costs, whenever staff in state education agencies believe they have sufficient insight into actual spending and sub-contracting practices.
• Require that teachers employed by virtual schools, and not parents, take primary responsibility for students’ education. The widely practiced corporate model instead largely relies on the parent as teacher and provides contracted teachers with insufficient time to interact with students and to provide support for those who struggle or drift away.

In addition to other recommendations, the authors highlight six areas deserving more immediate research attention:
1. Special education. How are virtual and blended schools serving students with disabilities? Data indicate that they are enrolling more and more students classified as having a disability. They are thus increasingly tapping into categorical funding for such students. However, little is known about how virtual schools are serving special education students and how they are spending the additional financial resources being provided.

2. School and class size. Further research on optimal school and class size is needed for virtual schools and blended schools serving children at primary and secondary levels. Also needed is research on the optimal type and duration of contact between virtual school teachers and their students.

3. Teachers. Just as in brick-and-mortar schools, teachers are critical for student success in virtual and blended learning schools. Therefore, a range of questions and issues related to teachers requires further inquiry. What constitutes good or acceptable teaching in fully online and blended learning settings?

4. Funding formulas. More evidence is needed specific to revenues and patterns of expenditures in virtual and blended learning schools. Reframing funding formulas to more closely reflect actual costs is critical. Such research must be conducted by persons or entities with no vested interest in, and no relationship with, private education management organizations.

5. Blended learning. Smaller school sizes and existence of some face-to-face activities are a few features that suggest that blended learning models may be more successful at integrating technology, expanding school choice options, and still ensuring adequate care and support for students. While the available evidence on blended learning is less comprehensive than evidence regarding virtual schools, the evidence that is available is not promising. More research is needed to determine if there are particularly effective delivery models or particular states or jurisdictions in which blended schools may be working well.

6. Research on existing virtual and blended learning programs. The research undertaken by the National Education Policy Center and Western Michigan University has focused largely on legally defined individual schools, excluding programs that are housed in traditional brick-and-mortar schools or in districts. The advantage of the focus on discrete schools is that identifiable demographic and school performance data are readily available from public sources. It is much more difficult and time consuming to collect data on virtual and blended programs co-housed in traditional schools or based in districts, research on which would entail discriminating between data applicable to the program and that applicable to the traditional school or the district.

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Laura Ascione

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