Troubling Findings Don’t Sway Parental Online Ed Enthusiasm

Although the popularity of online schools is growing in Colorado, a recent report from the Colorado Department of Education shows that, at least in some areas, online students underperform their peers enrolled in traditional schools. Yet despite these findings, according to the data published by the Buechner Institute for Governance at the University of Colorado – Denver, parents remain mostly enthusiastic about the quality of the education received by their children in online schools.

Over 16,000 Colorado students attend an online public school—a school choice that is valued by many families across our state. However, as the number of students attending online schools has grown and changed over the years, interest and questions about online schools from policymakers, media, and the general public has piqued. This study sets out to answer some of these questions. It utilizes Colorado Department of Education (CDE) collected data to analyze demographics, trends, and performance in online schools over time. It includes assessment, pupil enrollment, demographic and socioeconomic data collected from 2003 through 2011, as this is both the earliest and most recent data available from CDE at the student level.

The CDE report identified several ways in which online schools fall behind traditional brick-and-mortar public schools. Online schools were less likely to identify students struggling with literacy in the early grades, and therefore were less likely to provide timely intervention. School transfer rates of online students were higher than their peers, and they were also more likely to drop out of school prior to graduation.

There also appeared to be a disconnect between how enthusiastically parents and students embraced the online learning option and how effectively online schools resolved the issues that might have driven parents to choose online schools in the first place. Although many students chose online schools because they felt that either the atmosphere or the academic quality of their traditional schools were sub-par, many continued to have academic issues and continued to underperform once they transferred out of traditional schools.

The report speculates that the disconnect arises from the fact that many parents and their children don’t understand the realities of online education prior to enrolling in an online school. Among the recommendations offered in the report is an encouragement aimed at the parents to get more knowledgeable about what attending an online school actually entails.

The report also offers a number of suggestions that online schools in the state can adopt to improve academic outcomes for their students:

Online schools need to more accurately evaluate and diagnose their youngest students’ reading levels. Given changing demographics, online schools need to modify the programs and services they offer in order to better meet the needs of the students they are enrolling.

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