Monday, November 28, 2011

Should We Be Supporting Virtual Schools?

There was an excellent story in the Washington Post this weekend on the pros and cons of virtual schools.  Virtual schools are sort of a hybrid between public charter schools, online learning such as Khan Academy,  and homeschooling.  Virtual schools are K-12 educational systems run by public schools to teach children their entire education at home using technology.  These are generally treated as charter schools (and thus exempt from many school regulations), but are paid for and treated as part of the public school system, usually with significant learner support expected by the at-home learning coach (e.g., parent or other similar substitute).

It is quite an extensive article, so I recommend that you read it in full here.  But here are a few of the items that stood out for me:

Some Pros:

  • Virtual schools provide a different educational choice for students who can't go to school or who have been failing in traditional school.
  • For parents, virtual schools are similar to homeschooling, but without the responsibility or expense of obtaining high-quality curriculum yourself.
  • Technology allows students to study at their own pace and schedule, to review what they don't understand as often as necessary and to skip through the things that they do, to use multi-media rich learning materials, and, to some extent, to adjust learning to their own learning style.
  • Companies are investing lots of money into curriculum development, which presumably should translate into high-quality learning tools.
Some Cons:
  • Virtual schools have a pretty terrible achievement record, both in terms of test scores and in completion/graduation rates.  One study showed that only one third of the schools managed by the largest player in the business, K12 Inc, met the federal NCLB standards last year.  And the article had an example of the Colorado Virtual Academy, also managed by K12, which has achieved only a 12% on-time graduation rate, compared to 72% of other schools statewide.
  • In at least some states, the Virtual schools are "locating" in the poorest, most rural counties that received the highest levels of funding support from the state, but are enrolling students from throughout the state and counting them as students in that poor county.  So, for example, the Virginia Virtual Academy counts all its students as being from its home base in Carroll County, which the state reimburses $5,421 per student.  Therefore, the 66 students enrolled who actually live in Fairfax County, which would only receive $2,716 per student if they attended their local schools, are costing the state twice as much by being counted as Carroll County students.
  • Socialization can be a big issue with these students, because unlike local homeschool organizations, which foster a variety of group social and academic experiences, virtual school students receive all of their education in their own home, even starting as early as kindergarten.  Virtual schools are trying to address that issue and find more opportunities for their students to interact with their peers.
  • While these companies are paying 35% less for their teachers than traditional schools, they are putting lots of money into lobbying politicians.   According to the Post, in the past six years, K12 has contributed half a million dollars to US politicians, 3/4th of which went to Republicans (who are typically stronger supporters of the school choice movement).
This is actually a subject I know a good bit about in general, because not only do I homeschool, but I used to work in the distance education field before that.  The pros and cons above (at least the ones that don't have to do with funding and lobbying) are things that we have long known about the potential and the problems with distance education.

Education via technology is sometimes the only solution for some students, such as those that are geographically remote or isolated (students in Alaska, rural Maine, or the mountains of West Virginia, for example) or who have health problems, physical disabilities, or other issues that prohibit them from attending traditional schools.  Beyond that, distance education can be a fantastic option for disciplined, self-motivated learners.

However, while that designation applies to some percentage of students who fail in traditional schools, that description does not apply to the vast majority of struggling learners.  Particularly students in poor communities have little or no home support for their learning, since they are often in full-time employed single parent or dual working parent homes, many of who are illiterate and/or do not speak English.   They do not have access to the type of "learning coaches" that is critical for making this kind of education work, particularly for elementary-aged students.  So while it sounds good to say these programs give choice to failing learners, the reality is that having these types of students trying to learn through technology at home without any support is likely to make their educational performance be even worse, not better.  

As a homeschool mom, I can attest to the fact that showing a child the best-producing, most enthralling computer-based instruction featuring the most brilliant people on the planet does not ensure that he or she will learn anything from it.  As I have stated in an earlier post, education is so much more than just giving a child wonderful instructional content.

So while I'm not saying I don't think they have potential and shouldn't play a role in the panoply of educational options we are fortunate enough to have in our country, I, personally, am suspicious about how much at least some of the schools are really dedicated to solving our educational problems, and how much they are about making their owners a substantial profit.

But take my word for it.  Read the Post article, check into the situation in your state, and if you have any opinions, pro or con, feel free to add them below.

PS--Thanks to my father, who lives in DC, for pointing out this article for me.  Also, just to be clear, I am extremely supportive of distance education options for taking some classes, particularly among older students.  But the virtual school, which supplies the entire educational curriculum at home from literally grades K-12, is an entirely different matter.


  1. I think online education should be global (open worldwide) and built on peer-to-peer systems (rather than usual school hierarchies). While virtual schools as the article describes them are more sustainable than the brick-and-mortar ones, they aren't sustainable enough to educate 7 billion people in the world. So, I am looking elsewhere for good examples - like Stanford massive open online courses, Open Study, UNESCO OER initiative...

  2. I think that is a key factor (to me, at least) about supporting these institutions with tax dollars. What is the vision behind the educational endeavor? Is it truly to provide high-quality education to people who don't have access to it now, or who are failing or not being challenged in existing institutions? Or is to make money for the owners?

    And I still think, regardless of the scale (local or global), that the real issue is student support. As Khan Academy has shown, producing the content can be cheap (since he produced hundreds of modules for free just as a hobby in his spare time). Plus, you can produce it once and reuse it plenty. But online students often need as much, if not more, support as brick-and-mortar students, and that is a substantial and ongoing expense. Figuring that part out is what I think is most challenging.

  3. Yep, I think interaction is the key too - and that's where peer-to-peer structures come from, in my vision of how things could work. P2P is the only sustainable, scalable path I currently see.