This is the twenty-first session – and first one for Monday – that I am blogging from the 2014 annual meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) in Philadelphia. This session was a part of a symposium that was described as:
Virtual Schools in the United States 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence
In the past decade, virtual education has moved quickly to the top of the K-12 public education reform agenda. Though little is known about the efficacy of online education generally or about individual approaches specifically, states are moving quickly to expand taxpayer-funded virtual education programs. The main purpose of this session is to understand the specificities of today’s virtual school movement as it moves from novelty to mainstream. Drawing from a rich array of theoretical perspectives and content disciplines, we will examine the performance of full-time, publicly funded K-12 virtual schools, describe the policy issues raised by the available evidence, assess the research evidence that bears on K-12 virtual teaching and learning, and offer research-based recommendations to help guide policymaking.
The actual session is described in the online program as:
Full-Time Virtual Schools: Enrollment, Student Characteristics, and Performance
Gary J. Miron, Western Michigan University; Brian Horvitz, Western Michigan University; Charisse Atibagos Gulosino, University of Memphis
Full-time virtual K-12 schools, also known as cyber schools or online schools, are schools that deliver all curriculum and instruction via the Internet and electronic communication, usually with students at home and teachers at a remote location, and usually with everyone participating at different times (Means, B. e al., 2010). Although increasing numbers of parents and students are choosing this option, little is known about virtual schooling in general, and very little about full-time virtual schools in particular (Watson et al., 2011, 2012). For example, information has not been available on such basic questions as the number of virtual elementary and secondary schools operating, the number of students enrolled in them, and the rate at which they have expanded. Moreover, despite a dearth of research evidence useful in shaping policy, many states have adopted legislation permitting full-time virtual schools or removing the caps that once limited their growth (SREB, 2013).
The primary goal of our study is to describe the education landscape of all full-time virtual schools in the U.S. for which data are available for the 2012-13 academic year and to provide an estimate of their growth. We raise three research questions. They include: (1) How many full-time virtual schools operate in the U.S.? How many students do they enroll? (2) What are the demographic characteristics of students enrolled in full-time virtual schools? Within individual states, how do demographic data differ for students enrolled in virtual schools and those enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools? (3) How do full-time virtual schools perform in terms of student achievement relative to other public schools?
Our study is based on publicly available data, collected, audited, and warehoused by public authorities. The scope of the study is limited to full-time, public elementary and secondary virtual public schools serving U.S. students. This includes virtual schools operated by for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs) as well as virtual schools operated by states or districts. Private virtual schools are excluded. Also excluded are schools offering a combination of full-time virtual programs and blended programs, unless it is possible to separate data for the full-time virtual school component. The primary sources for total enrollment and school performance data are state-level datasets, Common Core of Data (CCD), and school report cards for the 2012-13 school year. Aggregated data reflect weighted averages based on enrollment. That is, averages have been calculated so that the influence of any given school on the aggregated average is proportional to its enrollment. Comparisons are made to norms for all public schools in the United States.
The results of our comparisons using AYP, state ratings and on-time graduation rates suggest that virtual schools are not performing as well as brick-and-mortar schools. The two themes that run through our findings are: (1) the inadequacies of state data and accountability systems on virtual schools; (2) the insufficiency of state policies and authorizing practices to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools.
For those that aren’t aware, this session was based on the National Education Policy Center’s report Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2014: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence, and Gary’s section was Section III.
Gary began by providing some background into the study, the fact that it is in its second year, and some of the methodology for his specific section. Based on their data collection, they were able to identify 338 full-time virtual schools that were serving 243,000. 61% of these were charter schools, and they accounted for 85% of the enrollment in full-time virtual schooling. 44% of the full-time virtual schools were run by for-profit EMOs, and this represented 80% of the full-time virtual school students. For-profit EMOs had an average of 1,230 students, while those operated by non-profit EMOs or no EMO enrolled an average of 470 and 362 students respectively. Gary stressed the fact that the data is poor in many respects.
Gary also underscored the fact that based on their data have more White students, fewer minority students, fewer free and reduced lunch students, fewer special education students, and fewer English language learners as compared to the national averages. This was consistent with the findings that Gary had in 2013, and in the examination of solely K12, Inc. data that he completed in the past. Gary did not that the K12, Inc. proportion of special education students (~10%) was higher than the full-time virtual school average (~7%).
In terms of looking at student performance, Gary and his team looked at the state’s performance rating, which factors in many issues. Interestingly, only 33.76% of full-time virtual schools had an acceptable rating by their state. Independent full-time virtual schools (i.e., district-based programs) were much more likely to achieve the state’s acceptable rating than their for-profit counterparts.
Gary concluded with highlighting the recommendations from the NEPC report.