“Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019”.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic closed down K-12 education and established an overwhelming interest in remote learning, there has been a rush towards creating virtual schools (also referred to as virtual charter schools, virtual academies, online schools, or cyber schools). There is a belief that virtual schools can customize online curriculum to individual students more effectively than curriculum in traditional classrooms, expand student choices, and attain greater student achievement than in traditional school models. And, the promise of lower costs makes this alternative attractive to both policymakers and for-profit provider. The question is, does research back up these claims?
The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) report—Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019—is its seventh annual report attempting to answer these questions. This report is a comprehensive attempt to analyze the characteristics and performance of K-12 virtual schools, review the current research as it relates to virtual school practices and outcomes, examine state legislative efforts to monitor these programs, and make policy recommendations.
Even though the current number of schools represents a small portion of the overall K-12 system, they constitute some of the fastest-growing options. The report examined two models: virtual schools (in which students receive all of their instruction on-line) and blended schools (offering a combination of face-to-face and online activities). Both are models that will be receiving much attention as K-12 education tries to navigate the Covid-19 waters. As of the 2017-18 school year, there were 501 virtual schools serving 300,000 students across 35 states. This represents a 20% growth over the previous five years. Seventy-nine percent of these students were enrolled in virtual charter schools, twenty-one percent enrolled in district operated schools. Sixty percent of the total enrollment was in schools operated by for-profit organizations.
In the same year, there were 300 blended learning schools serving 132,960 students across 33 states. Enrollment in this model has grown dramatically, increasing from 36,605 students in 2015-16 to 132,960 students in FY 2017-18 (263% increase). Only 26.7% of blended schools were operated by for-profit organizations.
This report examined the relative performance of virtual schools, blended schools and traditional schools using annual state-assigned school performance ratings and high school graduation rates. School performance ratings varied somewhat across states, but generally included: student academic performance, graduation rates, achievement gaps, attendance, parent/student satisfaction, etc. The resulting data classified schools as academically acceptable or academically unacceptable. Less than fifty percent (48.5%) virtual schools had acceptable school performance ratings. Only 44.6% of blended schools had acceptable school performance ratings. There was no data provided for traditional district schools.
An analysis of high school graduation rate data produced similar results. Only 50% of students in virtual schools graduated on time from High Schools, compared to 61.5% for blended schools and 84% for traditional district schools.
Citation(s): Molnar, A., Miron, G., Elgeberi, N., Barbour, M.K., Huerta, L., Shafer, S.R., Rice, J.K. (2019). Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved August 25, 2020]from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/virtual-schools-annual-2019.