Digging behind the shiny claims for online learning reveals some worrying trends
Logo NEPCOnline schools are proliferating, but a new US report from the National Education Policy Center in Colorado warns that they "continue to have serious problems with respect to education quality, diversity, accountability, and funding".

“Full-time K-12 online learning is growing exponentially, many policymakers praise it, and taxpayer money supports it,” says the report’s editor, Professor Alex Molnar of the University of Colorado Boulder, “And yet there has been little high-quality research to support the claims that justify its rapid expansion.”

"Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence" is the second in a series of planned reports on the full-time online education sector from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) based at Colorado University"s Boulder School of Education. It looked at 338 virtual schools operating in 30 states as part of local or state public education systems.

The findings are alarming. From several sources of data, the report found that "virtual schools enroll 248,000 elementary and secondary students in 39 states and the District of Columbia, up 21.7 percent from 2011-2012". One single commercial provider, K12 Inc, "accounts for 82 schools enrolling 87,808 students in 2013 – more than one-third of the nation’s full-time virtual school students".

'Diversity still lags in the online classroom'

Key findings include:

  • "Student diversity still lags in the online classroom; 3 out of 4 full-time virtual school students are white, non-Hispanic – although that same group accounts for 54 percent of public school students. The percentages of African American and Hispanic students are far below their respective shares of the public school student population.
  • "Virtual schools also serve a smaller percentage of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners than do other public schools."

Professor Gary Miron, who contributed to the report’s section on performance data, commented: "Virtual schools also compare less favorably to traditional public schools in various measures of student achievement and school performance.

"Across all measures of school performance, including AYP status, school performance ratings, student results on standardized tests and graduation rates, virtual schools are significantly below performance levels for brick and mortar public schools. "The evidence is overwhelming when you consider the magnitude in the difference in performance outcomes and add to this the fact that these findings remain consistent over time.”

The report’s authors want to see policymakers require virtual schools report more data on student and teacher performance. One reason for this is that "so little high-quality research exists to justify the sector’s rapid growth". They also want policymakers enforce higher quality standards and greater transparency and accountability in this sector.

More information

"Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence". This report was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The National Education Policy Center's mission is "to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions". It believes that "the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence".