Virtual schools, real concerns

At first glance, the Magnor family look like typical home schoolers. The five younger kids in the family head to the basement or the computer by the kitchen once breakfast is over. Patrick struggles through an earth science lesson as Annie reads "A Wrinkle in Time" and Bridget and Eileen play with numbers, all under the watchful eye of their mother, Mary. (John, a toddler, just finds ways to be mischievous.)

Technically, however, the four children are enrolled in the Northern Ozaukee School District. They're taught by certified teachers and the district gets state funds to support their education.

The Magnors are part of one of the fastest-growing trends in education: virtual schooling. For years an option in higher education, distance learning is quickly spreading to the K-12 arena.

Some 40,000 to 50,000 students in 37 states are enrolled in virtual schools, according to the US Department of Education. That's a pretty broad category, though. The term can refer to anything from the occasional specialized class taken online by a traditional high school student to all-day charter schools like the one in which the Magnors are enrolled.

Advocates of virtual learning say it opens new horizons, particularly for students in rural communities where choices are limited, or for those with special needs due to illness or serious involvement with athletics.

But critics worry about the lack of face-to-face interaction. Even more contentious, particularly with all-day virtual schools, is the difficulty of providing good oversight, and the question of giving state money to an outside district or charter school.

"Not a lot of people will argue that offering AP classes to students in the backcountry is a bad thing," says Daniel Allen, a researcher at Arizona State University. "Where people are starting to raise eyebrows is with [for-profit] schools." Also, argue critics, these schools siphon funds from traditional public schools.

These are, of course, the same concerns that have dogged all charter schools since their inception. The nature of online learning just throws such issues into sharper relief.

In Wisconsin, for instance, the open-enrollment policy means that any student can apply to any district in the state. Normally, logistics would keep someone in, say, Madison, from attending school in Appleton. But schools like the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), which the Magnors attend, can enroll students from anywhere in the state.

Each student they attract brings $5,400 in state money to the district running the virtual school. Competition for those funds led to a marketing blitz earlier this year, as the state's three largest virtual schools competed for students.

Home-schoolers, in particular, were targeted. "We had families receiving up to three and four and five mailings or e-mails," says Larry Kaseman, director of the Wisconsin Parents Association, which represents home-schoolers. He worries that home-schoolers - many of whom value independence and control of learning - won't realize what they give up by enrolling in such schools.

Still, plenty of families are thrilled with the option. WIVA had 400 students this year, and some 900 have applied for next year. For the Magnors, going with WIVA was a no-brainer, says Ms. Magnor.

The private school her children attended two years ago demanded too much help with fundraising. Last year, she tried homeschooling, but often felt lost and in need of guidance. The idea that she could enroll her kids at WIVA, get two computers, dozens of boxes of educational materials and books, and have an experienced teacher oversee everything - albeit from a distance - seemed too good to be true.

"I feel like I'm a partner with my teacher," she says, as Bridget plays number bingo on a computer. "We work as a team, and she helps me figure out the learning style for each kid. This gives me structure. I wanted someone to tell me what to do."

Magnor and her kids talk twice a month with their teacher, and go on regular field trips to museums or the symphony. Perhaps the biggest surprise: They're rarely on the computer. Magnor downloads and prints out most lessons, and her kids spend a lot of time reading or doing hands-on work, like the bean plants they're all currently growing for science.

She also knew she wanted a classic, back-to-the-basics sort of curriculum, and so was particularly pleased with the one WIVA uses, developed by K12, an online learning company headed by former US Education Secretary William Bennett.

In the online learning world, however, K12 - which has partnered with districts in 12 states - is relatively controversial. Many educators are uncomfortable with the idea of a for-profit company receiving public funds. And despite the somewhat futuristic and avant-garde image of virtual schooling, some experts lament that curriculum like K12's is anything but innovative.

One recent study funded by the Education Policy Studies Laboratory found that the K12 curriculum was frequently age-inappropriate, and was more focused on memorizing than developing concepts.

Overall, online charter schools have received mixed reviews in a number of states. Wisconsin's largest teachers union has filed a lawsuit against WIVA, alleging that it uses parents as teachers, violates the spirit of open-enrollment funding, and uses public funds to support homeschooling.

Educators have noted the relatively poor performance on state exams of virtual charter school students in Pennsylvania and Ohio. And in Florida, some legislators have questioned the millions the state has budgeted for two for-profit virtual schools.

Yet such high-profile controversies are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of virtual learners are traditional students taking a course or two online to enjoy options outside their local schools.

It's important, say experts, not to judge the entire concept of distance learning by a few scandals.

"The range and variation [in quality] in many ways is comparable to what we find in face-to-face learning," says Chris Dede, professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "It just depends, like everything else, on how it's done."

Professor Dede is skeptical about virtual schooling for younger kids, but in high school he says it can work well for certain students. The key, as with face-to-face learning, is that it be interactive and individualized.

Those two attributes don't jibe with most people's image of virtual schoolers gazing at a computer, without any human interaction. But the reality, say advocates, is far different.

"You're not talking to the computer, you're talking to people," says Kacey Scarlett, a sophomore in Forks, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula, now taking her third class through the Virtual High School this semester.

At the Virtual High School, in Maynard, Mass., classes are capped at 25 students, and a local site coordinator is at every member high school to give face-to-face support to students.

"We wanted online classes to be as much like a face-to-face class as possible in terms of the good qualities - the collaborative nature and the social aspects," explains Ruth Adams, VHS's academic dean.

And that's what Kacey says she's found. She was skeptical, and a little shy, when she enrolled in her first online course last year, on "To Kill a Mockingbird." Now, she's an eager participant in a young-adult literature class, and says she often gets to know the teacher and students better than in her traditional classes.

In a discussion of racism, she got perspectives from students in New York and Philadelphia she'd never heard before. "Forks is a small town, and we don't get very many people," she says. "Getting on the Internet, and thinking these people are thousands of miles away from me and I get to talk to them - that's really cool."

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