Virtual schools growing despite scant evidence of their effectiveness

From the Center for Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice

As virtual schools continue to grow – despite lack of evidence of their effectiveness – policymakers and education leaders must develop evidence-based governance structures to ensure accountability of virtual schools and blended schools, according to a new report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC).

Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017 recommends policymakers to focus on key areas regarding virtual schools’ performance and accountability. They include:

  • Establishing evidence-based cost formulas and accountability structures that govern virtual schools.
  • Addressing issues related to virtual instruction quality and creating legislation that measures and creates guidelines for online courses and programs.
  • Ensuring there is an adequate number of high-quality teachers in virtual learning environments and developing guidelines for appropriate teacher-student ratios.
  • Examining the quality of principals in virtual schools and determining their impact on teacher quality and professional development.
  • Setting up guidelines to prevent virtual schools from putting profits ahead of student performance.

“There is little evidence and independent research that supports the effectiveness of virtual schools,” researchers said in a statement. “Many of these virtual schools operate with little transparency and accountability structures in place. This report urges policymakers and educators to develop cost formulas and accountability structures based on evidence and third-party research.”

Although a significant amount of virtual school legislation was introduced during the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions, limited progress was made toward ensuring transparency and accountability among virtual schools. The 2017 report warns policymakers against rushing to expand virtual schools until there is more independent, third party research to inform new education policy.

“All students deserve access to a high-quality and cutting-edge education that prepares them for the jobs of the future,” the researchers said. “Before we open more virtual and blended schools, we need to make sure the ones operating now follow high standards to better ensure our kids can learn, achieve and compete for jobs. To accomplish this, we need more high-quality data and evidence to guide virtual education policy moving forward.”

The report found virtual schools lagging behind brick-and-mortar schools in a number of critical categories:

  • Virtual schools’ on-time graduation rates were 43.4 percent and blended schools on-time graduation rates were 43.1 percent, compared with 82.3 percent for all schools nationally.
  • The student-to-teacher ratio at virtual schools (34 students) is more than double that of our public schools (16 students).
  • Relative to national public school enrollment, virtual schools enroll fewer minority students: 65 percent of students are White-Non-Hispanic, 15 percent of students are Black and 12 percent of students are Hispanic. The proportion of students with disabilities has almost doubled from 6.8 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 12.9 percent in 2014-15.
  • Only 37.4 percent of full-time virtual schools received acceptable performance ratings, compared with 72.7 percent acceptable ratings for blended schools.

“It’s our responsibility to ensure that students who choose to be in virtual schools receive the best possible education,” the researchers said. “Teacher evaluations are a vital tool for improving instruction, and we need to ensure mechanisms are in place that evaluate our teachers in virtual schools and provide teachers with quality professional development.”

Since 2013, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado Boulder, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, has released an annual report on virtual schools. These reports provide research-based recommendations to guide policymaking on virtual education, an increasingly prominent fixture in education policy debates and today’s K-12 climate.

In recent years, virtual schools have been growing rapidly: Between the 2015 and 2016 school years, 528 full-time virtual schools enrolled 278,511 students and 140 blended schools enrolled 36,605 students. Currently, there are 34 states with full-time virtual schools and 21 states with blended schools.

Edited by Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, the report is produced by NEPC with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Find the report on the Great Lakes Center website: