Who is Evaluating Our Online Schools?

Virtual public schools are growing fast. Evergreen Education Group estimates that there are currently 250,000 students in online K-12 full time — a number up 40 percent in three years. But as these full-time cyber schools are so new there is little independent evidence on the outcomes for students, writes Leslie Brody at The Record.

"Nobody has looked at what happens to kids who spend the bulk of their educational experience on the kitchen table on a laptop," said Gene Glass, co-author of a new report on K-12 online schooling.

"They kill you with basic skills, drill and kill. You take a science course, but is there a lab? Do you do a dissection or see a video of one? It's shallow, a sad joke being played on the public."

A 2011 study by the Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes compared students in virtual charters in Pennsylvania to their counterparts in traditional public schools that fed into charters, finding that students who studied online had significantly smaller gains in reading and math than their traditional-school peers.

The reasons for the disparity were unclear, said study researcher Dev Davis.

Virtual charters are "a promising idea that we don't have enough information about yet," she said.

Gary Miron, a professor in the College of Education at Western Michigan University, agreed, saying that while virtual charters sign up many students, it's difficult to monitor them or verify their work.

"It's very difficult to hold these schools accountable for the students they enroll," Miron said.

Garden State Virtual Charter is looking to to open next year with 36 teachers and 1,000 students in K-12. Jason Flynn, lead founder of the Garden State Virtual Charter, said that documenting attendance shouldn't be a problem as teachers will be keeping an eye on students through two-way secured Web conferencing.

"There is constant interaction," he said.

"It's not like kids get e-mailed 30 sheets on Monday and submit them next Monday."

Not everyone is keen to go feet first. Until there's been some better evaluations, many would be more inclined to move cautiously into the virtual school world.

Acting education chief Christopher Cerf said:

"My own bias is that the really interesting area is in so-called hybrid schools as opposed to purely virtual schools, but I am committed to learning as quickly as we can about which technologies work best for kids."

"You can't do that by taking absolutist positions that we ought to continue in the model of seat time … as opposed to competency-based learning."

12 13, 2011
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