Online schools seem like a good idea. Institutions like Kahn Academy and Walden University allow for geographical versatility for students in remote locations. Indeed, the number of students enrolling in online programs has risen dramatically in the past few years.
It is then an easy jump to the idea of online charter schools for high school-age students. But do these virtual schools meet the same standards as traditional schools?
About 116,000 students were educated in 93 virtual schools in the 2010-11 school year, up 43 percent from the previous year. A virtual school is one where instruction is entirely or mainly provided over the internet. They are usually run by private educational management organizations (EMO), but not always. KIPP is the largest not for profit EMO.
The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) out of the University of Colorado is a non profit research center. A recent report issued from the NEPC says that only 27% of companies who operate online schools for profit meet the national standards of the federal No Child Left Behind law issued during the G.W. Bush administration.
48% of traditional brick and mortar charter schools meet these standards, as do slightly over half of all public schools nationwide. It is important to note here that charter schools are considered public schools.
The Principal Investigator of the research is Gary Miron, professor of Education at Western Michigan University. He points out that it is unclear as to why these schools are not performing academically. Socioeconomically, there are no differences from the schools that are meeting standards.
But is the No Child Left Behind law providing a reasonable measure of academics? NCLB, and the subsequent report by NEPC have been called into question, especially by one of the leading providers of online education, K12 Inc.
Of the 39 K12 virtual schools that that received an adequate yearly progress (AYP) rating (the measurement of No Child Left Behind) in 2010, only 13 met the standards. The other major company to provide online education is Connections Academy. Only 27% of its academies met the standards.
Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, said, “It’s not a reliable measure. The secretary of education [Arne Duncan] has said that the AYP measure under (No Child Left Behind) is broken and unfairly labels schools as failing.”
There is a case to made for this. For instance, a state needs 77%-88% of students to pass state exams in a specific subject in order to meet the standards. However, all students must make the goals, including the ones living in poverty, limited language students and special-education students (aka students who are often underfunded and ignored). If one group doesn’t make it, the whole school doesn’t make it. Schools must test at least 95% of students. They automatically fail if they have attendance rates below 90% and graduation rates below 80%.
Statistically these rates seem reasonable, but in the real world, there are all kinds of reasons that these don’t work.
Nonprofit EMOs have a better record of academic success than for-profits, and smaller EMOs perform better than larger ones, as measured by No Child Left Behind — a metric Dr. Miron calls “very crude.” He also points to research in Pennsylvania that looked at individual student achievement data and came to similar conclusions about virtual schools.
In addition, he says the number disparity between brick & mortar schools and EMOs is too large to ignore.
photo credit: hackNY