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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.

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There's also debate over how much public funds go to virtual schools. Dr. Huerta's research revealed school districts that championed new virtual charter schools to collect per-pupil funding for students who cost less to educate.

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Huerta identified a virtual school in California that was little more than a shipping warehouse with fewer than 10 teachers for 1,500 students: "There was virtually no overhead, and the district got to keep the rest of the money."

California now gives only a fraction of per-pupil money for virtual school enrollments. Idaho offers the full amount, but requires virtual charter schools to pay for their own facilities.

"We are providing cost savings to the taxpayers because we are running 35 percent cheaper," says Cody Claver, the head of Idaho Virtual Academy. The school enrolls 2,000 students, employs 75 teachers and staff, and maintains an attractive facility where students can come in for testing or weekly special needs help. Its graduates earn diplomas, just as students in traditional schools do.

Online education is set to surge, says the Hoover report, because of these cost savings and the flexibility to tackle unmet needs in the traditional system, such as AP courses.

Teachers in traditional schools "don't have a lot of time to be a tutor, mentor, or motivator because so much of their time is spent delivering one-size-fits-all lectures," says Michael Horn, executive director of education at Innosight Institute and a report coauthor. If computers take over lecturing, teachers can work with those who need help. "It can change our assumption of what teacher-student ratios make sense."

The report's growth projection met with mixed responses from experts.

"They could be on to something there" for subjects like math and spelling, says Gene Glass, an education professor at Arizona State. "Then there's the other half of the curriculum that you're never going to put on a machine: art, literature, a whole bunch of things that depend so much on a quality human relationship."

Huerta worries that the report's authors have confused efficiency with quality. "There has been no valid study showing that children participating in virtual or computer-based learning models are performing any better than in traditional schools," he says.

Reed's research in Arizona, involving 1,200 grades given in online courses, indicates that student performance has little to do with whether the lessons come online or in a classroom. "The method of delivery isn't the issue – it's the student," says Reed.

In Idaho, all four statewide virtual charter schools failed this year to meet annual progress targets on standardized testing. But so did 70 percent of all Idaho schools.

At Idaho Virtual Academy, teachers monitor student progress by tracking their performance on quizzes after new lessons. "It's not overly absurd for a kid to show up in a brick-and-mortar school and do practically nothing," says Mr. Claver. "In our school, it is out of the realm of possibility."

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