Report says virtual schools need to be improved before expanding

Students in virtual schools are, overall, not performing well, and policymakers should focus on analyzing and improving virtual education before allowing expansion of these schools, according to a new report.

The report by the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute is based on in-depth analysis of virtual education in five states, including Wisconsin. It found, for example, that in 2015-16 Wisconsin had 26 virtual schools enrolling 6,424 students, and two-thirds of the virtual schools that were rated received unacceptable performance ratings according to state standards.

The analysis also found that Wisconsin virtual schools had far more students per teacher (31.9 on average) compared with state norms (14.9 students per teacher) and national norms (16.1 students per teacher). Connections Academy reported having 42 students per teacher.

The report concluded that:

  • Policymakers need to slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed. They should prioritize understanding why virtual schools perform poorly under a college- and career-ready accountability system and how their performance can be improved prior to expansion.
  • Policymakers need to create long-term programs to support independent research on and evaluation of virtual and blended schooling.
  • Policymakers need to develop new funding formulas based on the actual costs of operating virtual schools and new accountability structures for virtual schools, including guidelines and governance mechanisms to ensure that virtual schools do not prioritize profit over student performance. Further policymakers need to assess the contributions of various providers to student achievement, and close virtual schools and programs that do not contribute to student growth.
  • Policymakers need to define certification training and relevant teacher licensure requirements specific to teaching responsibilities in virtual schools, require research-based professional development to promote effective online teaching models, and work with emerging research to develop valid and comprehensive teacher evaluation rubrics that are specific to online teaching.

Read the entire report (the Wisconsin section begins on Page 14):

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