Virtual, blended schools continue to grow despite poor performance

Although the number of parents and students choosing virtual and blended schools in the United States is rising, new evidence suggests these schools lag significantly behind traditional brick-and-mortar schools, a brief released Wednesday finds. Researchers recommend a host of corrective measures, from temporarily halting virtual school expansions to devising more appropriate outcome measurements.

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“Many virtual schools and blended schools have been promoted as an efficient, cost-effective way to bridge technology and learning, yet there is growing evidence that they’re failing to prepare their students for success,” said WEAC President Betsy Kippers. “Policymakers should hit the brakes on the rapid expansion of online schools until accountability measures are in place that ensure they’re no longer failing.”

Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review recommends exactly that: that policymakers and education leaders place a moratorium on virtual and blended schools until accountability measures are established that can identify why these schools are failing.

The report found virtual and blended schools are failing students in on-time graduation rates, student-to-teacher ratio and English language arts.

“Too many virtual and blended schools are continuing to operate without accountability measurements, and this report urges policymakers to dig deeper and ask tough questions about why these schools are failing their students,” said Kippers. “Before states allow more virtual and blended schools to open, it’s critical that policymakers and educators do a better job at identifying the causes of widespread underperformance among online schools and hold failing schools accountable for their outcomes.”

Despite these troubling findings, virtual and blended schools are continuing to expand without any guidelines or accountability measurements. Between the 2013 and 2014 school years, 447 full-time virtual schools enrolled approximately 262,000 students – up from 311 full-time schools enrolling 200,000 students just two years earlier – and 87 blended schools enrolled 26,155 students. Currently, there are 33 states with full-time virtual schools and 16 states have blended schools.

This report recommends that policymakers design new outcome measures for full-time virtual and blended schools to increase accountability and improve school performance. It also urges policymakers to create and enforce sanctions for these schools if they fail to demonstrate improved performance.

Additionally, authors of the report recommend policymakers require virtual and blended schools devote more resources to learning, especially by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers. State agencies should also require these schools to fully report data about student demographics and teachers. And new outcome measures should be designed appropriate to the unique characteristics of online learning.

The vast majority of students are enrolled in virtual schools operated by for-profit companies such as K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. Although for-profit corporations operate only 44 percent of virtual schools, these institutions account for 74 percent of all student enrollments. Additionally, for-profit virtual schools enroll an average of 1,027 students, compared to non-profit virtual schools that enroll an average of 286 students.

The National Education Policy Center produced the research brief, Virtual Schools Report 2016, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.