School & District Management

Virtual, Blended Schools Growing Despite Struggles, Analysis Finds

By Benjamin Herold — April 20, 2016 4 min read
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Virtual and blended schools continue to grow at a rapid pace despite persistently “dismal” academic outcomes and little knowledge about their internal workings, according to a new analysis from the National Education Policy Center.

In 2013-14, 262,000 students in 33 states were enrolled in 447 full-time virtual schools that deliver all instruction online, according to the NEPC. Another 26,155 students across 16 states were enrolled in 87 blended schools, which combine traditional face-to-face and online instruction.

Despite rising enrollment numbers, however, these virtual and blended schools fared poorly when compared to traditional public schools on a host of academic measures, according to the new study, titled Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review.

One glaring example: The 4-year graduation rate in 2014-15 was 40.6 percent for full-time virtual schools and 37.4 percent for blended schools, compared to 81 percent for the nation as a whole, according to NEPC.

“The rapid expansion of virtual schools and blended schools is remarkable given the consistently negative findings regarding student and school performance,” wrote Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, and Charisse Gulosino, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, in the study.

“Policymakers should slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”

The new report is the latest in a series of critical looks at virtual and privately managed schools from the NEPC, which is housed at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The group’s analysis included both charter- and district-managed virtual and blended schools.

In recent years, the cyber charter sector has come under withering scrutiny for poor performance and management. A 2015 report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, for example, found that the schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on student achievement growth.

Less research attention has been paid to state- and district-run virtual and blended schools, however. The NEPC analysis notes that roughly half of full-time virtual and blended schools fall into these categories, although charters tend to enroll substantially more students.

Among the other notable NEPC findings:

  • Virtual schools enroll “substantially fewer” minority and low-income students than the nation’s public schools at large. The student population of virtual schools was 70 percent white in 2013-14, compared to 50 percent in the nation’s public schools. One-third of students in virtual schools were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, compared to one-half of students in the nation’s public schools. Blended schools were more demographically representative, although they had substantially higher proportions of Hispanic students than the nation’s public schools.
  • Private education management organizations (EMOs) dominate the virtual school market, accounting for nearly three-fourths of all students enrolled in these schools.
  • The student-teacher ratios at virtual schools (35:1) and blended schools (32.4:1) were more than twice the national average in traditional public schools (16:1).
  • Virtual and blended schools struggled to make “adequate yearly progress” in the three states that have such schools and still use AYP as a measure of school accountability.
  • In states that have replaced AYP with their own systems for rating school performance, just 30.6 percent of virtual schools were rated “acceptable” in 2014-15. That figure was worse among virtual schools run by EMOs.
  • Of the 121 virtual schools for which data were available, 82 percent had proficiency rates on state math and English/language arts exams that were lower than state averages. Seventy-seven percent of independently managed blended schools scored below state averages.

The data used in the analysis were all publicly available, from the National Center for Education Statistics, state education agencies, and individual school websites.

Miron and Gulosino note some limitations to their study: Many schools were missing enrollment and/or performance data, for example, and the analysis includes demographic and enrollment information from the 2013-14 school year and academic performance information from the 2014-15 school year. Differences in student populations, as well as the inherently different nature of virtual and blended education, also make the comparisons between virtual and blended schools and traditional public schools inexact.

In addition to slowing or stopping the growth of virtual and blended schools, the NEPC recommends better oversight and accountability, state requirements that such schools devote more resources to instruction (in the form of caps on student-teacher ratios), and the development of new accountability measures that are specific to this form of schooling.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.