Online K-12 Schools Growing Amid Criticism, Questions

In Ohio, some parents are giving up entirely on their failing traditional brick-and-mortar schools and enrolling their children in online public schools full time, reports. Patty Elwell, one such parent, was one of the first to make that leap in 2004. After her local elementary school began dropping subjects like science and social studies from its curriculum, Elwell felt that her kids would get a better education from one of the first online charter schools in the state, the Ohio Virtual Academy.

"In spite of everyone's best efforts the local school couldn't meet their academic needs," says Elwell, a former full-time teacher in southwest Ohio who has a son in 12th grade and a daughter in ninth. "My only regret was I didn't do it sooner."

Now Elwell has both her children enrolled in OVA and, because she is a state resident, they both attend the school for free. And disappearing classes are no longer a problem: OVA's curriculum allows its students to take classes above their grade level, and even offers advanced placement and honors courses that are being dropped by traditional, financially-squeezed schools.

It's easy to confuse online public schools with homeschooling with an online component. While homeschoolers design their own curriculum, which is not reviewed by the state, online public schools that are under the auspices of the state must adhere to the same academic guidelines and standards and traditional public schools. Although currently homeschoolers outnumber online public school students 6:1, the momentum is undeniably shifting.

Across the nation, 48 states, plus the District of Columbia, offer some kind of online schooling. Twenty-nine offer full-time public schools. The growing popularity of online learning is hard to dismiss, but now questions are beginning to be asked about the effectiveness of the online education model compared to traditional schools. MPRNews reports that in Minnesota, where the numbers attending online classes "are booming," a recently released report showed serious academic achievement issues among 8,000 full-time online students it surveyed.

Legislative Auditor James Nobles found that, on the whole, online students tended to perform worse than their traditional school counterparts.

He found those students are less likely to complete courses they've started, and more likely to drop out of school altogether than students in traditional classroom settings. Two years ago, 25 percent of 12th graders in online schools dropped out, compared to just 3 percent in traditional schools.

Those students lagged behind their traditional peers when it came to the state's standardized math tests, although they generally kept pace in reading.

At the end of his report, Noble offered some recommendations. He suggested that the Department of Education raise the number of staff assigned to work with online schools. He also suggested that the Department review the process it uses to oversee and regulate online schools in the state.

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