Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Searching for the reality of virtual schools

This study, from the Center for Public Education, focuses on what we know and don't know about online K-12 education.

Main findings

• Online courses and schools enroll a small fraction of the 52 million public school students, but they are rapidly gaining ground. In 2009-10, elementary and secondary students took approximately 1.8 million courses online. In addition, about 250,000 students were enrolled full-time in virtual schools in 2010-11, up from 200,000 the year before.
• The development, management and staffing of online courses and schools is supported by both public and private providers. For-profit companies K-12, Inc., and Connections Academy together enrolled nearly half of all full-time online students in 2010-11.
• Funding for online learning varies by state, and ranges from 70 to 100 percent of state and local per pupil rates. The impact on district funds also varies by state. In some states, districts are billed for each student enrolled online. In addition, accounting for the actual cost of virtual courses and schools is often lacking.
• The jury is still out on the effect of online courses on K-12 student achievement. The U.S. Department of Education reviewed existing research and found a modest positive impact of online courses, but cautioned that the findings were based mostly on results for post-secondary students.
• Emerging reports show a troubling overall picture of poor performance and low graduation rates for full-time online students. Two small-scale studies found positive effects for elementary students, suggesting that parental supervision could be an important factor.
• There needs to be a clearer accountability path for online learning, especially in regard to monitoring student progress and performance as well as accounting for the cost of virtual schooling.

Online learning is rapidly growing at all levels, but particularly among high school students:

• 55 percent of public school districts have some students enrolled in distance education courses; of these, the vast majority (96 percent) are high school students (Watson et al., 2011).
• Total K-12 course enrollments were approximately 1.8 million in 2009-10; special needs students and students from low-income families were the least likely to participate in virtual courses (Watson et al., 2011).
• Ohio reports the highest number of full-time online enrollments in 2010-11 at 31,142, followed by Pennsylvania (28,578) and Colorado (15,214) (Watson et al., 2011).

States and districts have different policies regarding students in online learning courses. The degree to which districts monitor the performance of online students varies considerably. In many cases it is much less than required for students taking classes in traditional schools and should cause some alarm. For instance, while 98 percent of districts monitored students’ final grades in online education courses, only about half tracked students’ log in activity or time spent online.

Student outcomes
The one aspect of online learning that stands out is how little is known about its effect on student outcomes, especially at the K-12 level. Several attempts to document student performance have been thwarted by missing and incomplete data, lax monitoring rules, and a vague picture of students dropping in and out of the online environment and subsequently the accountability system. A few studies document online students outperforming their non-digital peers, showing that online learning can be a vehicle for high performance under the right conditions. Most of the studies we found that examine test scores, graduation or completion rates, however, tell a story of students worse off than their classmates in brick-and-mortar schools. Reports of high school completion rates at or under 25 percent, lower test scores, and high dropout rates in some virtual schools raise serious concerns for school districts, students, and parents. The contrast between two examples should illustrate the need for serious examination:

• A Stanford University study looked at eight Pennsylvania virtual charter schools and found that every one of them performed significantly worse in reading and math than their traditional school counterparts in terms of student gains. The study covered the period 2007-2010.
• An independent evaluation of Rocketship Education, a national “hybrid” or blended learning charter school network, showed sizable math gains among participating students at kindergarten and grade 1 compared to their peers. The average gains were equivalent to a 5.5 increase in percentile rankings over a 16-week period.