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Virtual schools see strong growth, calls for more oversight

Half of courses in Grades 9 to 12 will be delivered online by 2019, predicts a new report.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2008

SCIENCE CLASS: A pupil at Idaho Virtual Academy in Boise gets in-person help from head of school Cody Claver (c.) and a teacher.

Ben Arnoldy

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Meridian, Idaho

Rather than send her kids off on the yellow bus, Briana LeClaire has school come to her home. Her kids attend a virtual public school, connecting online to teachers and coursework. Everything from books to microscopes to radish seeds arrives via brown trucks.

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Mrs. LeClaire describes it as the 21st-century, middle-class version of the private tutor. Her 6th-grader can move quickly through her strong subjects, such as literature, and spend more time on her weaker areas, like math.

Enrollment in online classes last year reached the 1 million mark, growing 22 times the level seen in 2000, according to the North American Council for Online Learning. That's just the start, says a new paper by the Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank at Stanford University. Its authors predict that by 2019 half of courses in Grades 9 to 12 will be delivered online.

The efficiency of online learning accounts for this growth. But there's little research assessing the quality of these programs, which some experts say don't have enough official oversight.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, "you have to have high standards, tight oversight, scrutiny over what teachers are doing. Yet on the other extreme, also promoted by the federal government, are these loosely accountable approaches to schooling," says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College who has researched virtual schools for more than a decade.

Even some supporters of online learning say education officials need to provide more guidance. Some states allow online Advanced Placement (AP) courses; some don't. Ditto for requiring lab work in science courses. The inconsistencies stunt the online model's growth, says David Reed, a researcher at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Among the oversight questions is how to track attendance. Most states mandate a minimum number of hours of instruction. At Idaho Virtual Academy, the school the LeClaires attend, it falls on parents to submit a weekly log of their child's hours.

What counts as learning time is open to interpretation. A teacher at the academy suggested that a family's Bible reading could count. But Tamara Baysinger, a state official who oversees virtual schools, says parents can't count time spent on curriculum not provided by the school. Computer log-ins provide some objective accounting. "There are monitoring systems in place where they can't just log on and go watch television," says Ms. Baysinger.

Mr. Reed suggests a better way to account for learning: Keep track of course material completed, not number of hours of instruction.

"If I've got a kid who's taken algebra three times and failed it three times, what is the point of putting him in another 90-hour class?" says Reed, who works for a private virtual school. "The Web course allows you to isolate the need and do it quicker, but [schools] don't want to do that because dollars are tied to seat time."

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