Virtual Schools Not Passing the Test

Children who enroll in a K12 Inc. cyberschool are more likely to fall behind in reading and math, move between schools or leave school altogether, according to a new study from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado.

K12 Inc. is the nation’s largest virtual school company. It operates 48 full-time virtual schools in 2011-12, and provides services and support to dozens of other schools that offer online classes.

Some of the biggest problems the study found were K12 Inc. students’ low on-time graduation rates, math, and reading scores.

Math scores for K12 Inc.’s students are 14 to 36 percent lower than scores for students attending more “traditional schools” in the states in which the company operates schools. In grades 3 – 11, K12 Inc. students’ reading scores were between 2 and 11 percentage points below the state average.

The on-time graduation rate for K12 Inc. students is 49.1 percent, compared with a 79.4 percent on-time graduation rate for the states in which the company operates schools.

“Our in-depth look into K12 Inc. raises enormous red flags,” NEPC Director Kevin Welner said. The report’s findings were presented in Washington last week to a national meeting of the American Association of School Administrators, where the report’s lead author, Dr. Gary Miron, debated Dr. Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K–12 Online Learning.

“Computer-assisted learning has tremendous potential,” said Miron. “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.”

The company’s schools usually operate on less public revenue than traditional schools, but they have “considerable cost savings,” according to a press release from NEPC. They devote minimal or no funds to operating costs including facilities and transportation, and they have more students per teacher and pay teachers less. Furthermore, the study found K12 Inc. spends half as much per student than charter schools overall spend on special education and a third of what districts spend, according to the press release.

“Part of K12’s problem seems to be that it skimps on special education spending and employs few instructors, despite having lower overhead than brick-and-mortar schools,” said Welner, who is also a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado.

K12 Inc. students are also very likely to change schools, which could lead to their low on-time graduation rates.

In light of shrinking education budgets, state governments have considered using online schools to cut costs in education. But this latest study echoes the growing body of evidence suggesting students do not learn as well in cyberschool environments.

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 found virtual-school students ended up with learning gains that were “significantly worse” than students in traditional charters and public schools. Audits and state evaluations in five different states have reported similar conclusions.