Online K-12 Schools’ Underwhelming Results Could Threaten Industry

Online-only schools are opening around the country as K-12 education looks to innovative solutions to improve results. Since the first school that allows students to take all K-12 classes online opened its doors in the US, taxpayers have spent more than $12 billion dollars to give students an entirely flexible learning experience. Everything about cyber [...]

Online-only schools are opening around the country as K-12 education looks to innovative solutions to improve results. Since the first school that allows students to take all K-12 classes online opened its doors in the US, taxpayers have spent more than $12 billion dollars to give students an entirely flexible learning experience. Everything about cyber schools is on the upswing: their numbers, the enrollment, the advertising – everything, that is, except results.

Stephanie Simon of Politico reports that after analyzing school report cards being released by the states every year, it becomes clear that students in online schools substantially underperform their peers in traditional schools. The results are particularly dismal in math, writing and science, although, according to Simon, the reading achievement levels among the students are nothing much to write home about, either.

Online school operators defend themselves by saying that they get the worst of the worst when it comes to students. For many kids, online schools are a solution of last resort. They study there because not one but several traditional schools had already failed them. Is it any wonder, then, that their scores are underwhelming as a result?

But lately, more states have begun measuring how much students actually learn during the school year — and a POLITICO review of the data shows many cyber schools are flunking that test.

Ohio’s six biggest cyber schools all got Fs on their state progress reports, meaning students learned nowhere near a year’s worth of material in a year of studying online. In Colorado, students at five of the six biggest cyber schools failed to make as much annual growth in math as peers around the state — often by yawning margins. In South Carolina, all four cyber charter high schools had academic growth ratings of ‘below average’ or ‘at risk,’ as did two of the three elementary schools.

Initially, questions about the quality of education delivered by online schools were raised chiefly by critics, but as the questionable results continue to pile up, even those who believe that online education is the future are beginning to express concerns. Susan Patrick, the President of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade group for online education providers, noted that unless the results improve — and fast — they could sink the entire industry before it’s fully established.

To be sure, there are a few bright spots in online education, a diverse field that includes both charter schools and schools overseen by states and local districts. Smaller cyber schools tend to do better. So do those that spend more on instruction to keep the student-teacher ratio low, state regulators say. Among big networks, schools run by Connections Education, a division of the publishing giant Pearson, tend to post better results.

Yet when researchers from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder evaluated academic achievement at every one of the more than 300 online schools in the U.S., they found “serious and systemic” problems throughout the industry. There has been little effort by legislators to rein them in, said Gary Miron, a co-author of the report. The NEPC receives funding from unions that generally oppose online schools, but even strong proponents of digital learning say there’s been a disturbing lack of movement to close failing cyber schools.

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