A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has examined virtual schools in an effort to determine what type of students are enrolling, which courses students are signing up for, and whether these schools actually improve academic outcomes for their students.
Conducted by learning technology researcher June Ahn from NYU, the report, “Enrollment and Achievement in Ohio’s Virtual Charter Schools,” looks specifically at virtual schools in the state of Ohio because the state boasts the largest population of full-time virtual students throughout the United States with over 35,000 students enrolled in e-schools. The sector has recently seen an enormous amount of growth with a 60% increase in enrollment occurring over the last four years. The authors note that this is more than has been seen in any other type of public school.
The report looked at four years of comprehensive student-level data in their examination of virtual schools throughout Ohio. Findings suggest that e-school students are similar in race and ethnicity to students who attend traditional public schools. However, students at e-schools typically are lower-achieving and more likely to have repeated a grade, are more likely to be enrolled in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and are less likely to be a part of a gifted education program.
Students who take math courses online were found to be more likely to enroll in basic classes when compared to students who enroll in face-to-face courses. Very few students were found to take advanced math courses online, such as AP Statistics or Calculus, in comparison to students taking face-to-face classes.
When all grades and subjects were considered, e-school students were found to have lower scores on statewide tests than students of similar academic abilities who attended brick-and-mortar schools. Meanwhile, students in grades four through eight who attended physical charter schools performed slightly higher than their district school peers in both reading and math.
Finally, findings suggest that e-schools pull the entire performance of charter school sector down.
The authors recommend that instead of using an “all-or-nothing” approach when it comes to e-schools, students be allowed to combine fully online programs with face-to-face classes without having to pay tuition to do so. Currently in Ohio, if a student wishes to take one course online, all other courses must also be taken online. The authors suggest that instead, online courses should be used to supplement traditional education methods.
The report goes on to suggest that e-schools tailor how they deliver content in order to provide academic support to those who need it to maximize student success. The authors say that some students who attend these schools may have been failing out of brick-and-mortar schools due to a lack of self-motivation, independent learning skills, parental support, or possibly a quiet, stable place to study.
The report says that e-schools should make public the information necessary for students to determine if it is the right type of program for them. It states that e-schools should actively recruit those students it believes would be most likely to benefit and succeed in an online learning environment.