Researchers dispute claim that virtual schools better address students’ individual needs

The National Education Policy Center released a three-part research brief Tuesday that disputes claims that virtual schools are best equipped to address the individual needs of students.

The authors of the report titled “Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019” recommend lawmakers “hit the pause button on further virtual school expansion until we understand how to address the poor performance of these schools.”

In addition to slowing or stopping the growth of virtual charter schools, the researcher also recommend: 
  • Implementing measures that require virtual and blended schools to reduce their student-to-teacher ratios.
  • Enforcing sanctions for virtual and blended schools that perform inadequately.
  • Sponsoring research on virtual and blended learning “programs” and classroom innovations within traditional public schools and districts.

Two North Carolina virtual schools continue to receive the support of state lawmakers despite being persistently low-performing. And state House leaders are currently pushing a bill that would establish a virtual Pre-K program to address a long wait-less for preschool seats in the state.

Researchers said the poor performance by virtual school programs across the country has done little to “dampen policymakers’ enthusiasm, perhaps because virtual schools are marketed as promising lower operating costs — primarily via cutbacks in instructional personnel and facilities.”

Here are synopses of the three-part report:

  • Section I of the brief, Full-Time Virtual and Blended Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance, provides straightforward analyses of the characteristics and performance of full-time, publicly funded K-12 virtual schools. The data reveal that full-time virtual and blended learning schools continue to perform poorly.
  • Section II, What Virtual and Blended Education Research Reveals, points to a serious shortfall in the scholarly research. It reviews the relevant available studies related to virtual school practices and finds that much of this is atheoretical, methodologically questionable, contextually limited, and overgeneralized. As a result, the available research is of little value in guiding policy.
  • Section III, Key Policy Issues in Virtual Schools: Finance and Governance, Instructional Quality, and Teacher Quality, provides an overview of recent state legislative efforts to craft policy regarding virtual schools. As in past years, bills to increase oversight of virtual schools continue to be introduced. Some legislative actions have been prompted by state audits and legal challenges, as exemplified by recent virtual school controversies in California and Ohio. As such, the bills have been aimed at addressing accountability and governance structures, as well as curbing the operation of for-profit virtual schools. However, there is little evidence that legislative actions are being informed by available research on the performance of virtual schools.

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