States Face Accountability Woes with Online Schools

As the popularity of online K-12 education grows, states are struggling with putting in place accountability measures that assure that the quality of the education provided doesn’t suffer as a result. Classes over the internet are frequently touted as the next big leap in elementary and secondary school because they can provide lessons tailored to [...]

As the popularity of online K-12 education grows, states are struggling with putting in place accountability measures that assure that the quality of the education provided doesn’t suffer as a result. Classes over the internet are frequently touted as the next big leap in elementary and secondary school because they can provide lessons tailored to each individual student, but the problem of oversight remains a difficult one for the states to solve.

Ben Wieder writing for Stateline — the Daily News Service of The Pew Charitable Trusts — explains that a number of questions recently raised about a few online education providers have prompted calls for stronger accountability measures to be put into place. This has also becomes more pressing as states increasingly cede control over online schools to individual districts.

In turn, instead of running their own programs, the districts might contract out with companies like K12 Inc which basically take over the running of the entire system, from providing instructors to writing the curriculum to setting up and maintaining the necessary IT infrastructure.

Florida has nearly 150,000 online K-12 students—more than any other state—and the Florida Virtual School was the first state-run online school in the country. Florida is one of only four states requiring students to take an online course in order to graduate, and it allows students to go beyond their local areas and pick online courses from other districts across the state. But Florida doesn’t have much staff charged with overseeing online education.

“Up until a couple of months ago, I was the virtual education office in the state,” says Sally Roberts, who now has the assistance of another full-time worker. Others in Florida’s education department do help Roberts vet potential course providers for a state-approved list of districts and charter schools.

Current accountability enforcement policies vary across states. In Tennessee, for example, there is no dedicated staff working on overseeing online schools exclusively, but legislation proposed by the state’s governor Bill Haslam to cap online school enrollment until a better system could be put into place is gaining steam.

A similar effort to put a limit on growth is underway in Pennsylvania, where 8 online charter applications were rejected last year, in part because the currently operating ones are not performing as well as expected. A recently published report by the state auditor in PA also raised questions about the return on investment in online schools.

Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, who has studied academic performance in online education, published a paper last July in which he found that fewer than one in three K12 Inc. schools reported making adequate yearly progress in 2010 under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Fewer than one in five of the full-time K12 Inc. schools rated by their states were deemed satisfactory. Miron says the results from other for-profit providers aren’t much different, though public providers do have somewhat better results.

Miron’s paper wasn’t the only black eye K12 has been dealt in the past year. The company has also been dealing with allegations that it hasn’t been using properly licensed teachers in its courses offered in Florida.

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