New study gives failing grades to virtual schools

Nationwide, almost 300,000 students grades K through 12 attend school entirely online. - Jdurham / Morguefile
Jdurham / Morguefile
Nationwide, almost 300,000 students grades K through 12 attend school entirely online.

Thousands of K-thru-12 students in Michigan never set foot on campus — they take all their classes online via two virtual charter schools. But some new policy briefs give virtual charter schools overall a failing grade.

Researchers with the National Education Policy Center found that students at the virtual schools complete their courses less often, and have lower scores on standardized tests, compared to kids in brick-and-mortar schools. Michael Barbour, associate professional of instructional design at Touro University in California and a co-author of the research, blames the for-profit model of these online charter schools.

"Unfortunately, what we find is that decisions made about the instructional environment aren't made based upon instructional design, or what's in the best interest of the kids," says Barbour. "They're made based upon what is the most cost-efficient way of doing this."

Michigan law allows for two virtual schools, and they're run by the private companies K-12, Inc., and Pearson Education. The companies say they comply with all regulations and provide an important option for students who don't thrive in a traditional school environment.

Barbour says bills to better regulate virtual schools have failed in the Michigan Legislature thus far, in the face of lobbying by the online school companies and of opposition from lawmakers who want to reduce the influence of public schools and apply a 'free-market' approach to education.

"Most people in Lansing have no problem with not just allowing these programs to continue to operate, but they've actually made it easier for them to operate and have encouraged more students into these programs," says Barbour.

The report, which was partially funded by the Great Lakes Center in East Lansing, recommends that legislators halt the expansion of virtual schools and impose stronger accountability measures that tie state funding to student achievement.

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