Virtual Schools Under Scrutiny

As public schools nationwide struggle with devastating budget cuts, online schools are expanding – even in the most cash-strapped districts. Currently, 27 states operate these so-called “virtual” schools. This trend is accelerating as evidence mounts that online schools are not effective alternatives to traditional schools.

Online schools recruit students with the appeal of flexible scheduling and extra convenience, as well as targeting at-risk students who have poor academic track records or have trouble learning in regular classrooms. As their popularity has increased, however, virtual schools have largely escaped oversight by state lawmakers.

According to researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the regulation of online schools is long overdue.

“Cyberschools maintain few rules, little supervision, many students and families who struggle and an unacceptably large number who won’t make it through to the end,” said Dr. Gene V Glass, co-author of a new report produced by the National Education Policy Center, “Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation.”

The controversy is at the forefront in Colorado, where taxpayers will fork over $100 million to fund cyberschools in 2011. Educators in the state generally support online learning, but primarily as an option for the students who need expanded learning opportunities beyond traditional bricks-and-mortar schools.

“Online programs should be accountable to students, families, and the public in the same ways that all public schools are accountable,” said Jeanne Beyer of the Colorado Education Association. “Whether operated by a school district or a charter school, they should not have less accountability or fewer standards, nor less oversight.”

“Online learning programs should supplement traditional classroom instruction,” Beyer added, “not completely replace it.”

Yet that’s just what public school educators and administrators fear as full-time virtual schools expand. According to a new investigative report by Education News Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, in 2010 online schools in Colorado grew seven times faster than traditional institutions.

The investigation revealed a system of online schools that was lacking accountability and oversight and producing results that do not justify their expansion. A large number of students, for example, end up leaving Colorado online schools in the middle of the year to return to their conventional counterparts and some drop out of the system altogether. Despite this high turnover, millions of dollars are still funneled to virtual schools.

The University of Colorado study released earlier this week details how online schools are largely unproven and may be even detrimental to building students’ critical skills. Online classes, for example, may not take the students’ individual learning practices into consideration, and, as a result, hinder student growth.

Evidence shows that children benefit from social interaction, face-time with teachers, and learning in a structured environment. While supplemental online courses may help some students graduate on time and provide courses that otherwise aren’t offered in schools, many caution that full-time online schooling is the wrong answer.

“We have to make sure that cyberschools don’t become just a cheap way of providing second-rate service to disadvantaged school districts,” Glass said. “No matter where they live or in what form they receive instruction, all students deserve quality teachers, supported by a rigorous program of accreditation and accountability.”

Until these safeguards can be put in place, Glass warned, policymakers should tread very lightly before diverting scarce educational resources to virtual schooling.

“To improve education for all, policymakers should focus on improving our local schools so all students can get the well-rounded education they need to succeed.”