A new study should raise serious questions for anyone who believes that virtual schools are a viable solution to improving student achievement. The report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado shows that students at K12 Inc., the nation's largest virtual school company, are falling further behind in reading and math scores than students in brick-and-mortar schools.
Students at these virtual schools are also less likely to remain at their schools for the full year, and the schools have low graduation rates. "Our in-depth look into K12 Inc. raises enormous red flags," says NEPC director Kevin Welner.
"Our findings are clear," says Gary Miron, an NEPC fellow and lead author of the report, "Understanding and Improving Full-Time Virtual Schools." Children "who enroll in a K12 Inc. cyberschool, who receive full-time instruction in front of a computer instead of in a classroom with a live teacher and other students, are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. These children are also more likely to move between schools or leave school altogether—and the cyberschool is less likely to meet federal education standards."
K12 Inc. schools generally operate on less public revenue, but they have considerable cost savings, says Miron. They devote minimal or no resources to facilities, operations and transportation. These schools also have more students per teacher and pay less for teacher salaries and benefits than brick-and-mortar schools.
"Computer-assisted learning has tremendous potential," Miron notes. "But at present, our research shows that virtual schools such as those operated by K12 Inc. are not working effectively. States should not grow full-time virtual schools until they have evidence of success. Most immediately, we need to better understand why the performance of these schools suffers and how it can be improved."
Student performance results from the current study are in line with the existing body of evidence, which includes state evaluations and audits of virtual schools in five states, as well as a more rigorous study of student learning in Pennsylvania virtual charter schools conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO's study found that students in virtual schools ended up with learning gains that were "significantly worse" than students in traditional charters and public schools.
"Our research highlights a number of significant issues at K12 Inc. schools, and we recognize that these issues are also of concern at other full-time virtual schools," says Miron. "We need a better understanding of how this new teaching and learning model can be most effective, so that full-time virtual schools can better serve students and the public school system as a whole."
More information on the report is available on the NEPC website. [NEPC press release, Dan Gursky]
July 18, 2012