The success rate of online charter school programs is, across almost every measurable statistic, awfully low. Yet Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems convinced that virtual schools are the wave of the future.
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Classroom on your laptop

As part of DeVos’ advocacy for the charter school and voucher systems, she has been a major proponent for virtual education – something she believes is a strong alternative to traditional school settings.

DeVos and the other members of that camp argue that virtual schools provide a way for students who struggle in the classroom to educate themselves at a personalized pace. In theory, the increased flexibility in scheduling and course selection would create more opportunities for those looking for more advanced programming or those physically unable to attend a brick-and-mortar institution.

There’s no doubt our education system is in serious need of reformation. Educators and administrators need to be more open to potential shake-ups in the way we teach our kids. But online charter schools have proven to not be the answer.

Numbers don’t lie

Retention rates are abysmal. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. According to a 2015 study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), only 25 percent of online charter school students remained in those schools after three years. That percentage drops to 13 percent at four years and just 6 percent after five years.

If we’re talking about academic growth, things don’t look good, either. CREDO’s study showed that students attending virtual schools suffered on their math and reading skills. Compared to students who attended traditional schools, the assessment levels for math and English of virtual school students were 0.25 and 0.10 standard deviations lower, respectively. That equates to 180 less days of schooling in math and about 72 less in reading.

Virtual school students also scored significantly worse on standardized testing. Basically everywhere you look, online charter programs were outperformed by their traditional counterparts.

But that’s a weak sample size

Advocates for virtual schools claim that research on the subject has been shoddy, at best. They’re not necessarily wrong.

Aside from the big players (K12 and Connections Academy) most virtual schools haven’t been around long enough to be judged on sustained metrics. There’s an argument for letting it ride and seeing what this new movement can produce.

Then again, the numbers that have manifested themselves already — albeit through limited sourcing — are nothing but terrifying. With class sizes reaching up to 180 in high school programs, it’s hard to imagine students ever getting the individualized attention they may need to fully thrive.

Our take

We understand the desire to move the needle on Ed reform, but if the detriment to students is this well documented it means we haven’t quite figured out how to do online education. It may very well be that schooling moves in a virtual direction, in fact, it makes a ton of sense.

Until we can ensure that no student is marginalized or disadvantaged by the system in place, we haven’t fixed a thing.

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Posted 06.13.2017 - 04:52 pm EST