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Virtual schools failing nation's students, report says

FILE - In this March 17, 2020, photo a child works on an online class assignment in Beaverton, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
FILE - In this March 17, 2020, photo a child works on an online class assignment in Beaverton, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
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Virtual schools and the state policies for those schools are both lacking, according to a new report from the National Education Policy Center.

NEPC, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder, has now issued nine reports over the last decade on the performances of virtual schools. And officials say there’s been scant improvement.

“What we've continued to find is that the performance of students attending virtual schools lags that of those that attend traditional brick-and-mortar schools,” said NEPC Director Alex Molnar.

The key arguments that are made in favor of virtual schools are not supported by research, he said.

“And, with regard to policy, there doesn't seem to be very much movement at all,” he said.

Virtual education can take various forms.

On one end of the spectrum would be a single, supplementary class taught live online.

In the middle would be “blended instruction” that combines online work with in-person classroom time.

And then there’s the fully virtual education, which is what this report focused on. That full-time virtual instruction can happen both live or with the student handling it on their own schedule.

Around 720 full-time virtual schools meet the criteria for the NEPC report. That’s up about 250 from before the pandemic.

Michigan has the most full-time virtual schools with 81.

California has the most students enrolled in full-time virtual schools, with close to 60,000.

Other states with at least 30,000 fully virtual students are Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, and the aforementioned Michigan.

Full-time virtual schools operate in 35 states, with a total nationwide enrollment of around 578,000.

Some fully virtual schools are operated by public school districts.

A third of all virtual schools are charters, and they account for nearly 60% of all the children enrolled in virtual schools, according to the NEPC report.

Molnar and his colleagues say virtual schools have worse student-to-teacher ratios – 24.4 students per teacher compared to the national public school average of 14.8.

And the graduation rate of 65.1% in virtual schools fell far short of the national graduation rate of 86.5%.

And full-time virtual schools enroll fewer low-income students compared to public schools overall, the researchers say.

“You would ask yourself if the focus here is on improving student learning outcomes and providing a higher quality educational experience for students, then why would something that is demonstrated to be in broad strokes a manifest failure, why would it continue to spread and have such support in some quarters?” Molnar said. “And, as best as I can tell, this is a reform that is driven primarily by ideology and profit-seeking.”

The virtual schools, which are set up as both nonprofit and for-profit entities, pull in public dollars to operate.

Molnar said most virtual schools wouldn’t exist without public dollars.

And the report says there’s money to be made for both the companies that operate the schools as well as the technology companies that create the instructional platforms.

Enrollment in full-time virtual schools nearly doubled during the pandemic, according to the report.

But virtual schools shed 65,000 students by the 2021-22 school year.

The pandemic was a golden opportunity for these schools to show what they can offer.

But Molnar said a lot of folks weren’t impressed.

“It was a golden opportunity, and the virtual schools showed precisely why it's a bad idea,” he said.

Many virtual schools continued to receive low performance ratings, with the proportion of “acceptable” ratings for virtual schools in 2021-22 dropping to 41.2%, according to the NEPC report. That was a slight drop from 2019-20, when 42.8% of virtual schools received acceptable ratings.

The NEPC report says virtual schools don’t live up to their “flamboyant marketing claims.”

Are families being sold a bill of goods?

“By and large, yes they are,” Molnar said.

“That isn't to say that virtual technologies or digital applications don't work well under some circumstances with some students,” he added.

But not all students would get the same value from virtual school, especially without a robust support system at home, he said.

Virtual schools are sold as offering personalized and flexible instruction.

The NEPC report disputes that notion, saying that virtual schools actually provide flexibility but not personalization.

Those concepts – personalization and flexibility – are in fact often at odds with each other, the report says.

Online schools typically rely on standardized materials and expect students to learn independently or with the support of their parents, according to the report.

“(The) definition of personalized learning ... is that kids progress at their own rate through this rigid digital platform, right?” Molnar said. “It's an insane idea that somehow that represents personalization.”

The National Virtual Teacher Association said it “recognizes the importance of incorporating a live component into virtual instruction and the need for teachers to receive proper training for virtual teaching.”

That can allow teachers to address misconceptions, clarify complex concepts and adapt their teaching strategies to meet the unique learning styles of their students, the group says.

“... the transition to virtual instruction requires teachers to acquire new skills and adapt their pedagogical approaches to the online environment,” a NVTA statement reads. “Unfortunately, it is true that very few schools and teachers have received adequate training for the virtual classroom. This lack of training can hinder the effectiveness of online instruction and limit the educational opportunities available to students.”

NVTA says it’s crucial to invest in training for teachers who operate in a virtual environment.

“By empowering teachers with the tools and expertise needed to navigate the virtual classroom, we can ensure high-quality education and maximize student success in the online learning environment,” NVTA says.

The NEPC report also offered policy recommendations for improving student success in virtual schools. Those include:

  • establishing requirements for reducing student-to-teacher ratios and increasing contact between teachers and online students,
  • slowing or stopping the growth of virtual schools until student outcomes improve to the level of brick-and-mortar public schools,
  • requiring individualized education plans for all virtual school students, similar to those given to special education students,
  • screening incoming students and encouraging parents to reconsider enrollment if a virtual school is not a good fit for their students,
  • providing in-person training for all incoming students on how to use the virtual school programs, and
  • requiring virtual school graduation rates to align with statewide averages.

If the virtual school fails to meet the graduation benchmarks, the NEPC report recommends that the school should be placed on probation.

If that school is still on probation after five years, it should be closed, the NEPC suggests.

"No state is adequately handling virtual education," Molnar said.

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