Record: Alex Molnar, ed., Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence (Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center, 2014). Available here.
Summary: This post summarizes the second of three sections of this report. For a summary of section one, which surveys recent legislative activity concerning virtual schooling, click here. For a summary of section three, which provides data about the number of online schools and the type of students attending them, click here.
Section two surveys the research literature on virtual schools. It was written by Michael K. Barbour of Sacred Heart University.
Barbour begins with the general statement that despite the fact that we’ve had 20 years now of virtual schooling, the research base for this form of education remains very weak. There is a fair amount of research on supplemental forms of online education but very little on full-time, especially in the elementary grades. What little there is is often very poorly designed and/or produced by advocacy organizations trying to secure more funding for their initiatives. With these constraints in mind, he turns to the data.
The first topic Barbour covers is academic achievement. Though a few studies sponsored by the Education Management Organizations (EMOs) that run virtual schools have claimed that students perform well, nearly all of the independent data that has been coming in over the past several years paints a uniformly poor picture of student achievement in online schools. Barbour cites test score data from several states as well as a few independent analyses. These analyses have consistently found that though virtual schools enroll on average more white and affluent students and fewer students with special needs than conventional public schools, the scores of students enrolled in virtual schools lag behind those enrolled in brick-and-mortar public schools, especially in math.
The second topic Barbour covers is funding. Though advocates often claim that online schooling costs as much as and should be funded on par with brick-and-mortar public education, independent analyses have consistently found that virtual schooling really costs about 65-75% of what conventional schools cost. Barbour notes in this section that some of the research is suggesting that parents play a significant educative role in virtual schooling. Perhaps, he suggests, it is more like homeschooling than like conventional public schooling, and therefore the school itself should be paid less given its reduced work load.
The third topic Barbour considers is best practices. All of the studies that claim to offer the best methods of delivering online curriculum are based on opinions of teachers or administrators. None have been tested. There is basically no scientific knowledge about what approaches to online k-12 learning actually work and what don’t. The one thing that a few small-scale studies have found is that students succeed more when online education is abetted by a capable “learning coach,” who most often is the parent. Recognizing this, some virtual schools have even created guides to help parents coach their children. Barbour notes that “the reliance of these online charter schools on the parent as a primary provider of instruction and instructional support have led some to question whether these programs are publicly-funded instances of homeschooling.” (p. 44)
Barbour’s final topic is a comparison between for-profit and non-profit models of virtual schooling. He notes some of the same problems section one of this report noted about EMOs. He cites recent data from Utah, where the state’s non-profit charter school scored an overall grade of “C” based on student test data, while the charter school run by the EMO K12 scored an “F.” Again, there are not enough studies on this question, but such preliminary data suggests that “policymakers need to look closely at this area to determine if public funding for schools run by for-profit corporations constitutes an investment in quality education.” (p. 45)
Barbour concludes by recommending that states create long-term programs to research online learning. He encourages researchers to work with online education providers to help solve some of the problems identified with this method of education, and he asks legislatures to limit the growth of such schools until we know more about them and have learned how to fix some of the problems that currently beset the industry.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College