MAKING THE GRADE: Virtual schools, are we moving too quickly?

By Daily News • Last Updated 9:06 pm on Friday, March 28, 2014

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

Suggested reading material about education, from newspapers, journals, books or other sources, comes across my desk on a regular basis. I try to read as much as I can and I try very hard to keep an open mind. Things are changing rapidly and there are many agendas. I believe that it is important to keep an open and yet critical mind when assessing the many ideas that are out there.

This past week I received information about a new report about virtual schools. It is a two-year study recently released by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) and it confirms some of my own concerns.

For those of you who may not be familiar with virtual schools, let me explain. Virtual schools, sometimes referred to as cyber schools, are not a physical location. They are conducted entirely on the internet. Students must have a computer and an internet connection. Some virtual schools are operated by a public school district while many others are operated by private, for-profit companies.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to virtual schools. The advantages are that students can attend from any location with internet access. The hours are flexible and there is no need to commute. Some disadvantages are that not all students have the necessary skills to get the best learning experiences online and there are limited opportunities for interaction with others. And although virtual schools offer curriculum for all grade levels, they cannot provide opportunities for participation in activities such as music or athletics.

Virtual schools enroll nearly 250,000 students in 39 states and Washington D.C. and that number continues to grow. There is now legislation addressing virtual schools in 30 states.  According to the summary of this study that I received, this legislation has failed to address the concern about how virtual schools are educating students. The report cites Michigan for Public Act 129 of 2012 that creates a potential for expansion of full time K-12 virtual schools.

The study claims that this legislation was not justified “either by the performance of the state’s existing online charter schools or by existing research into full-time online learning.” Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron, who has an extensive background in evaluating school reforms and education policies, said that the evidence that virtual schools are underperforming is “overwhelming.”

You can read the full report on the NEPC website

However, the following are a few of the things that the authors of this study recommend that state governments do based on their findings to assure that virtual schools are serving students well.

Develop new funding formulas based on the actual costs of operating virtual schools.

Develop new accountability for virtual schools, calculate the revenue needed to sustain such structures and provide adequate support for them.

Establish geographic boundaries and manageable enrollment zones for virtual schools.

Develop guidelines and governance mechanisms to ensure that virtual schools do not prioritize profit over student performance.

Define new certification training and relevant teacher licensure requirements and continually improve online teaching models.

Develop guidelines for appropriate student-teacher ratios.

Finally, I agree with the report that “additional research is required to determine whether the business model of for-profit, corporate online charter schooling affects factors that lead to a high quality online learning experience. It is unclear, but essential to know, whether alternative management arrangements for online charter schools affect the quality of education provided.”

According to a recent article in MLive, the most recent MEAP results show virtual schools are struggling. Technology is being used in almost all schools in new and creative ways. I strongly support venturing into new and uncharted waters to develop the best possible options for our students to receive the education necessary for the 21st century. But I am also committed to doing this carefully and always with the best interests of all students in mind.  All schools should show performance and all schools should be mindful of research and rational thinking as they continue to make improvements that meet the needs of all students. We cannot allow our policy makers to forget that the purpose of public schools is to serve students. They are not a business to make a profit for adults.


Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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