Online K-12 schools are spreading across the country, but controversy is simmering over how well they perform and whether all students should be eligible to “attend” them.
As of 2010, at least 27 states had at least one entirely full-time, publicly funded online school, including high schools and schools serving pre-kindergarteners through 12th grade. While enrollment numbers are hard to find, researchers estimate that more than 150,000 K-12 students nationwide attended virtual schools full time in the 2009–2010 school year.
Online-only schools originally were set up to accommodate students facing illness, pregnancy, bullying or some other issue, but they have since begun to accommodate those who, for whatever reason, wish not to attend a brick-and-mortar institution.
But about two dozen states prohibit students whose schooling is tax-supported from taking all their courses online and insist that publicly funded schools include some live instruction, according to researchers at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The number of students taking online courses has soared at many state-run virtual schools. At the Florida Virtual School, established in 1997, attendance rose 39 percent in the 2009–2010 school year and another 22 percent in 2010–11. At New Mexico's IDEAL (Innovative Digital Education and Learning) school, established in 2008, the number of courses rose 37 percent in 2009–2010 and 85 percent in 2010–11.
Some all-online schools are established by individual school districts and others by states. Some are available only to students living in certain school districts, while others are open to out-of-state students. Most, however, draw taxpayer funding according to much the same per-student formula used for traditional schools. Yet most virtual schools — though not all — are operated by private companies.
While online schooling is a growing phenomenon, some researchers say it is not appropriate for students to attend virtual schools full time — that is, without taking at least some classes in a traditional classroom setting.
Online-only education provides a helpful haven for some, however, says James Lerman, director of the Progressive Science Initiative, a program at Kean University in Union, N.J., that helps experienced teachers become certified to teach math and science. For example, when the Florida Virtual School opened, “it was for kids who had problems going to regular school, such as being pregnant, having failed before, being disaffected or having to work,” he says. For those students, he says, virtual schools may provide welcome shelter from a hostile climate they might face in a traditional school.
But whether large numbers of students would benefit from all-virtual education and whether online schools produce academic-achievement results equal to those of traditional schools remain in hot dispute.
In a 2007 study of both full- and part-time online students, the nonpartisan Florida TaxWatch research group found that Florida Virtual School students “consistently outperformed their public school counterparts” on reading and math in state achievement tests. The school earned “high marks” for both student achievement and cost-effectiveness, said the group.
Studies in some other states have found problems, though.
A 2011 study of Pennsylvania's virtual schools by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that in both reading and math achievement students at all eight online schools performed “significantly worse” than their counterparts at brick-and-mortar institutions.
In a 2006 audit of online schools in Colorado, state analysts found that “in the aggregate, online students performed poorly” on state achievement exams, were “about four to six times more likely to repeat a grade than students statewide” and had a dropout rate between three and six times higher than the statewide rate.
High dropout rates — in the range of 50 percent or greater — are common among online schools, but that's not surprising, says Paul Kim, chief technology officer of Stanford University's School of Education. “Why? They joined the online school because they hated regular school, and the online school turned out to be just like it” in stressing standardized testing and rote memorization, for example, he says.
In addition, while teachers in virtual schools communicate individually with students via email, chat programs and other Internet-based modes, in general “online schools don't give students the support they need” to learn from computer-based material on their own, Kim says. Unlike students in traditional schools, those who learn online must pace themselves through their studies. And to succeed, they need skills of “self-regulation and self-assessment,” he says. “A lot of this is not supported in the online school.”
— Marcia Clemmitt