How good (or bad) are virtual schools?

K12 Inc.‘s virtual schools aren’t performing well, concludes a National Education Policy Center (NEPC) analysis by Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel. Only 28 percent of the for-profit company’s schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2010-11, compared to 52 percent of schools nationwide. K12 students were less likely to score at the “proficient” level on state tests. The on-time graduation rate for K12 high school students was 49 percent, compared to 79 percent at schools in the same states.

NEPC uses  “badly flawed measures of school performance,” counters Matthew Chingos of Brookings on Education Next.

. . . the measures of “performance” it employs are based primarily on outcomes such as test scores that may reveal more about student background than about the quality of the school, and on inappropriate comparisons between virtual schools and all schools in the same state. What parents and policymakers need to know about a school is how much its students learn relative to what they would have learned at the school they would otherwise have attended.

Comparing virtual schools to all schools in the state ignores the possibility that ” families are most likely to choose the virtual option when their traditional options are unsatisfactory,” Chingos writes.

I’d guess that virtual schools attract a disproportionate number of students who are bored, restless and unsuccessful at traditional schools. These students are likely to be unsuccessful at virtual schools too since online learning requires self discipline (or close parental supervision).

States should “slow or put a moratorium on the growth of full-time virtual schools,” the NEPC report urges.

Policymakers and parents need reliable data to evaluate virtual schools’ quality, Chingos counters.  “It is simply not possible to make these sorts of decisions with the data in the NEPC report.”

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  1. Test scores are either relevant or they’re not. If they constitute grounds to privatize schools and line the coffers of the providers of online education, they’re relevant to whether those online providers should continue to receive taxpayer money for substandard(ized) results.

    Your point is valid – if online schools attract the students least likely to perform well in online schools, that would explain the poor performance, but it also translates into online schools being a poor option for most students who are inclined to choose them.

    If in fact the position, “We have lousy students so it’s understandable that they have lousy test scores” is in any way defensible, it should be easily substantiated by showing that the students had similar scores before they enrolled in the online school, and that those who transitioned back to traditional schools continued to perform at the same, low level. If the excuse is accepted and substantiated, though, that simply makes online schools “part of the problem” as opposed to “part of the solution”.

  2. cranberry says:

    “What parents and policymakers need to know about a school is how much its students learn relative to what they would have learned at the school they would otherwise have attended.”

    Really? If your local public school is terrible, you should be happy if your child’s performance is marginally less terrible than it might have been, had he stayed home? How does one establish a conditional outcome, i.e., “what a student would have learned?” Neat trick, if you can do it.

    The first wave of parents to use online resources had many parents of gifted children. Gifted children can learn from many resources, including a decent public library. Proponents of online education have proclaimed the advantages of online education. The early adapters differed significantly from the current adapters, in my opinion. It is quite possible that districts are using online providers to get rid of disengaged or disruptive students.

    An enormous disadvantage of online education is the “black box” nature of its instruction. When students compete assignments at home, scattered across the country, it’s very hard for independent authorities to judge the school. There’s no classroom or school building to visit.

    If the student body is more white, more likely to be English-speakers, and less likely to be living in poverty, it’s not necessarily a less able student body. I don’t personally consider the state average to be a high bar to meet. Unlike standard schools, the students don’t meet in person, and thus virtual schools will (presumably) lack the community effects of classroom peers.

    The NEPC’s performance report on K12 is kinda what one would expect, had one read the New York Times’ report on K12 on December 12, 2011. I won’t hold my breath waiting for K12 to provide researchers with the data to compare students to similar students in the home districts.

    I do find interesting the middle school participation. Are students more likely to seek alternatives to their local middle schools than their elementary or high schools? Is this due to students’ social life, such as bullying or social isolation, or a stagnant middle school curriculum?

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Just about every decision in life hinges on a comparative: what will happen if I do this compared to what will happen if I don’t? That involves making predictions, and as Neils Bohr famously said, “predictions are difficult, especially about the future.” But we have to make decisions, so we have to make predictions as best we can.

      Which, among other things, means gathering decent data. If K12 won’t “provide researchers with the data to compare students to similar students in the home districts,” fire their asses.

      • cranberry says:

        I think one can predict outcomes in a general fashion for large groups of students much better than for individuals. A white child of divorced parents in a rural town. Do you expect him to do as well as other children from single-parent families? Do you change the expectations if his parents are college professors?

        For all we know, K12 might be doing better than one could expect for non-gifted, non-sped children struggling in middle school, whose parents are not homeschooling from conviction. At some point, though, the categories become too specialized to make any sense. Data’s great for policy discussions. It’s not nearly as useful for deciding which school to choose for one child.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    Virtual charters tend to attract homeschooling parents who put little-to-no emphasis on test prep. In fact, I know several HS parents who encouraged their children to fill in the bubble sheets randomly in order to protest having to take the exams. I’m the oddball among the virtual charter parents I know because I do have my kids work through a Spectrum STAR test prep book. My DH is a skeptic of homeschooling, and has made scoring in the “advanced” range on both English and math a prerequisite of continuing homeschooling for the following year.

    • cranberry says:

      Some are homeschooling parents, but others are not. Some public school parents encourage their children to boycott state exams. I don’t know how one can ascertain which group of students is more likely to take the tests seriously. It could well be a wash.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        From the perspective of a virtual charter parent, I don’t think there is any question that the overwhelming majority of virtual charter students are getting far less standardized test prep than they would if enrolled in my district’s schools.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    As always with seeking data on human beings choosing one alternative or another, we have the chicken-egg problem.
    Is he bright because of his scores?
    Did she choose such and such because she’s bright?

    • Virtual Schooling seems to fall in line with what I consider the other evil in schooling, credit recovery programs, which in many instances are just outright fraud.

      Perhaps when the graduates of a virtual school find out their diploma is virtually worthless when they need to pass actual assessments in college or the military, then they might just realize they were cheated out of an education.