This is the twenty-second session 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:
Key Policy Issues in Virtual Schools: Finance, Instructional Quality, and Teacher Quality
Luis Alberto Huerta, Teachers College, Columbia University
Scaling up virtual school reform presents significant implementation and accountability challenges, as several recent research and technical reports on virtual schools have illustrated. Although there have been some recent legislative efforts to clarify expectations in such areas as accountability and standards, states are struggling to establish accountability mechanisms appropriate for both guiding and auditing virtual schools—even as they allow them to expand. In 2011, for example, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana and Michigan either increased or eliminated enrollment caps for full-time virtual schools; however, none of those states passed legislation strengthening accountability and oversight mechanisms. A continuing challenge for states will be to reconcile traditional funding mechanisms, governance structures, and accountability demands with the unique organiza¬tional models and instructional methods found in virtual schools.
Drawing on recent reports and our own research on virtual charter schools, we consider relevant policy issues in the following critical areas:
• Finance : Much of the debate over virtual schools focuses on appropriate funding levels compared to traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Funding formulas for virtual schools must be reconsidered and adjusted to account for the actual costs associated with the new instructional delivery model. In addition, given the potential of virtual schools to expand access beyond the traditional geographic boundaries associated with brick-and-mortar schools, governance systems must be structured to address the challenges associated with extended attendance boundaries.
• Instructional program quality: Accountability mechanisms for virtual schools must address not only their unique organizational models but also their instructional methodologies. Quality of content, quality and quantity of instruction, and quality of student achievement are all important aspects of program quality that have yet to be addressed by accountability models linked to unique delivery models of virtual schooling.
• High quality teachers : The common assumption that effective teachers will wholeheartedly embrace digital tools and be motivated to teach in a one-dimensional virtual environment must be carefully examined. Factors that support teachers and promote effective teaching include strong leadership, peers, professional development, books, materials and a myriad of other resources. Policymakers must ensure that such support, or other types of support necessary in a digital environment, is available to professionals teaching online. Effective recruitment, professional development, assessment, and retention of high quality teachers are all critical components of a strong virtual environment in which both teachers and students thrive.
This section will identify relevant common assumptions; and, related but unanswered key empirical questions linked to the policy issues outlined above. And lastly, we advance a set of policy recommendations intended to help policymakers and practitioners address the challenges identified.
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 Luis’ section was Section I.
Unfortunately Luis had to go back to New York unexpectedly, so he was not available to do his portion.