Virtual or Vanishing Schools?

virtual school

virtual school

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) released its 2015 report on virtual schools.  As usual there is some good news and some bad news.  The “good news” is that students taking Algebra I and English courses do not do any worse than students in traditional public schools.  What a curious turn of phrase.  In the context of the full report, perhaps it is a warning sign.

One thing is clear.  It is difficult to obtain the comprehensive, valid data that are needed to evaluate the quality of the online education sector.


This is the third annual NEPC report.  It has three separate articles on:  2014 legislation, research reports, and online school operation.  The first two sections reflect what is lacking.  The third section describes what is.  Let’s start there.

Section III:  Full Time Virtual Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics and Performance

Online schools are growing in number and enrollment, primarily in the for-profit sector.  Yet, district based and non profit virtual schools appear to be more successful.  They are smaller and closely supervised.  They also serve a much larger percentage of high school students than do for-profit virtual schools.  Some students take advanced courses, some are in credit retrieval courses.  Others are taking courses required for graduation.  The report does not clearly identify these groups.  It odes, however, provide some descriptive information.

  • 400 full time virtual schools enroll 261,000 students.
  • 70% of students in schools operated by education management organizations (EMO)s.
  • For profit schools averaged 1166 students; non profit and public schools averaged about 300 students/
  • 84% of students are in virtual charters.
  • Fewer minority, low income, Ell or ESE students in virtual charters. 70% are white, non-Hispanic.
  • An average of 16 students per teacher in district schools; 40 students per teacher in for-profits.
  • 28% of schools had no accountability.  Of  the 285 schools with accountability measures, 41% were rated acceptable.
  • 37.6% of virtual charters vs. 44.9% of virtual district schools earned acceptable school performance ratings.
  • 48% of independent schools earned acceptable ratings vs 27.6% of for profit schools.
  • On time graduation rate for full time virtual schools was one half of national rate (43% vs. 78.6%).
  • District schools served slightly more upper grade levels than charter schools.
  • For-profit virtual schools (K12 and Connections Academy) served substantially fewer upper grade level students than non profits, with stark enrollment drop offs after grade 9.

Key Recommendation:  Given the rapid growth of virtual schools, the population they serve, their relatively poor performance on widely used performance measures, it is recommended that policy makers slow or stop growth in the number of virtual schools and the size of their enrollment  until the reasons for their poor performance have been identified and addressed.

Section II:  Limited Evidence, Little Guidance:  Research to Guide Virtual School Policy

There is a lack of guidance based on research to inform virtual school policy.

  • A 2014 Michigan Virtual Learning Institute reported that only 31 of 50 states had any formal evaluation or approval process beyond those for brick and mortar schools.  Of those studies, most used different criteria and methodology.
  • Online teaching standards organizations do not publish research validating the standards.
  • In depth research on the comparative effectiveness of non-profit and for-profit virtual schools is needed.
  • Actual cost analyses for online education should be made.

Section I: Key Policy Issues:  Finance and Governance, Instructional Quality, and Teacher Quality

Finance and governance issues include accurate determination of costs, management oversight, and control of profiteering.  The instructional quality issues involve accessibility of advanced courses, blended learning, dual enrollment, amount of seat time, and proficiency standards.  Teacher quality issues include recruitment, training, evaluation and retention of teachers.  Little progress has been made on identifying requirements for the preparation, certification, and licensure of online teachers.


  • Develop new funding formulas based on actual costs
  • Develop new accountability structures
  • Establish geographic boundaries and student enrollment zones
  • Develop guidelines and governance mechanism to control profiteering
  • Require quality curricula aligned to state standards
  • Provide formative and summative evaluations of student achievement
  • Assess providers contributions to achievement, and close low performing schools
  • Define new teacher certification and licensure requirements
  • Address student retention and teacher/student ratios
  • Create effective teacher evaluation rubrics

Note:  The Brookings Institute did a review of the 2013 NEPC study.  A critique of the 2014 study has not been released.


Posted in Online Education.

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