Cyber Schools Are Failing, So Why Are They Expanding?

cyber_schools_failingOne of the most frustrating characteristics of the education reform political climate is the correlation between a specific policy’s popularity and the absence of any reliable evidence supporting its effectiveness. Whether its overtesting, budget cuts, merit pay, or vouchers, it seems the weaker the case, the greater likelihood that idea proliferates.

Add cyber schools to the list. They’ve been around for a couple of decades, but it wasn’t until the past few years that more lawmakers increasingly looked to virtual schools as an attractive option to bricks-and-mortar public schools. Supporters argue that they provide students with a more flexible, individualized curriculum, are far less expensive than traditional schools, and can produce greater student achievement. The problem is that these are more assumptions than facts grounded in reliable data.

New study finds virtual schools continue to lag behind traditional public schools on grad rates, AYP, etc.

As a new study by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) concludes, full-time virtual schools – many of them organized as charters – continue to lag behind traditional public schools on graduation rates, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and state performance rankings.

“Despite the considerable enthusiasm for virtual education, there is little credible research to support virtual schools’ practices or to justify ongoing calls for ever greater expansion,” the report states.

The authors concede that the available data is limited, which may make their findings less than definitive – but “there is not a single positive sign from the empirical evidence presented here.”

Although they still represent a relatively small percentage of school choice options, cyber schools have grown steadily over the past decade. There are currently 400 full-time virtual schools operating in thirty states with a total student enrollment at around 260,000. Connections Academy and K12 Inc, two for-profit companies, account for 57 percent of these enrollments.

Estimated Enrollment Trends in Full-Time Virtual Schools. (National Education Policy Center)

Estimated Enrollment Trends in Full-Time Virtual Schools. (National Education Policy Center)

This impressive growth, however, should not mask the fact that, whether its the lack of accountability structures, the difficulty in recruiting and training high quality teachers, concerns over curriculum, or the underrepresentation of minority students, cyber schools are facing major challenges.

Here’s what the available data tell us:

  • In 2013-14, of the 285 virtual schools that were rated by state performance measures, only 41 percent were deemed “academically acceptable.”
  • In 2011-12, virtual charter schools scored 22 percentage points lower on AYP than bricks-and-mortar public schools.
  • The on-time graduation rate for virtual school students in 2013-14 was barely half the national average.
  • The average student-to-teacher ratio is twice that of the nation’s public schools.
  •  Little progress has been made toward the development of requirements for the preparation, certification, and licensure of online teachers.
  • Virtual schools serve significantly fewer minority students, fewer lower income students, and fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools.

According to the NEPC report, state laws governing the funding and accountability of cyber schools tend to be vaguely-worded, incomplete and are often not enforced when data is available that suggests a problem exists. The report points to examples in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Tennessee where aggressive lobbying by for-profit providers circumvented legislative attempts to slow down cyber school expansion in the face of evidence that the schools were underperforming.

Cyber schools growing steadily, but “not a single positive sign from the empirical evidence” in new study

The good news is that lawmakers in a few states are taking a harder look. The NEPC report singles out the Pennsylvania for the steps it has taken to rein in the industry’s profiteering and to identify tighter accountability measures for student learning.The record of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charter schools was so abysmal that the state denied all applications for additional schools in 2013 and 2014. 

Similar progress on a national scale, however, has yet to be seen.

“The rapid expansion of virtual schools is remarkable given the consistently negative findings regarding student and school performance,” the report concludes. “New opportunities are being defined and developed largely by for-profit entities accountable to stockholders rather than to any public constituency.”

  • Gary Wyatt

    What is more important? Kids or saving a buck,and making these computer companies richer? All the evidence points to kids learn more,remember more,and comprehend more, with paperbooks,and writing things down using a pencil. A machine can’t take the place of that, or a human being provided help and encouragement to students.

    • cybermom

      As with any school system, there are those it works for and those it doesnt. If your child is highly motivated and loves to learn, there is no brick and mortar school that can give them the opportunities cyber school can because they go at their pace. My daughter is set to graduate with 18 college credits completed, she completed 4 years of Spanish and Latin, she has 6 classes in upper level math, 6 classes in upper level English, 6 classes in science. 6 classes in history and government, engineering, CAD, photography, creative writing, art history, music history, debate, and mandarin chinese. She also varsity lettered in 3 sports, worked 2 jobs, coached 2 youth sports teams, and tutors in math. She has been accepted to 10/10 schools she applied to including 2 ivy league schools (which do not give merit aid, only need based) and was offered full tuition to everyone except the ivy schools and full rides to 2 of them.
      I would love to see the brick and mortar school that put her where she is today.

  • Gary Wyatt

    Also, ask the actual teachers. who teach,and work with kids, and they will tell you that virtual learning is not what’s best with kids….

    • Lyndsey

      I am an actual teacher, a member of the NEA, and an online educator. I teach in a not-for-profit arrangement and I teach an AP course that is typically not offered in a face to face setting due to low enrollment and specialization. My course works extremely well for kids, but not all kids. It’s an AP course, and some people believe online learning will be easier than the classroom. This is absolutely not true. If anything, it’s more rigorous since there is more student responsibility to remain engaged and motivated. As a teacher, I enjoy teaching online as it gives me a greater opportunity to work one-on-one with students and to help them with their specific problems with the material.

      My students do extremely well on the AP Macroeconomics exam- my pass rates are well above the national average.

      Perhaps before talking about “actual teachers” you consider that online educators are actual teachers and take some time to engage in the material. I’m sure you’ll find that just like individual brick-and-mortar classrooms, online classrooms are just as diverse in their methods and engagement.

  • Harry Henderson

    the current trend in online learning is merely the corporate take over of education and those efforts should be stopped.

    however, i am a big supporter of using digital learning to aid in the educational process, but you can not use these programs in a vacuum. you must have experienced qualified teachers to also get some face to face time with the students [these new online programs don’t do this]. to be really successful you also must have additional ramifications beyond failure for students in these programs. for example my school is a hybrid and we see students every other day and they work at home the other days but if they are not being successful we recommend they go back the the traditional high school. the reason why these online programs are failing is because the students are not getting face to face time with real teachers. furthermore, this approach does not work with all students. our school also has an average student-to-teacher ratio is that is lower than the nation’s public schools

    so lets be careful to not throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to using digital learning, it is a valuable tool that experienced qualified teachers can use.

    and to be clear i am against PARCC and excessive testing in general, the VAM is a sham, hanna is not qualified to make educational decisions in NM, we need to stop the corporate take over of education and common core, while good in theory, is currently a train wreck.

  • Mike

    “there is not a single positive sign from the empirical evidence presented here.” REALLY? How about the fact that it’s at least a better alternative for many families who are sick and tired about their sons and daughters being locked up in a prison-like school of two or three thousand other teenagers with all of its’ associated mayhem: sexual abuse, substance abuse, bullying, fighting, and general climate of authoritarianism? Escaping school prisons is a GREAT SIGN of health.