Wang, Y., & Decker, J. (2014). Can virtual schools thrive in the real world? TechTrends, 58(6), 57-62. doi:10.1007/s11528-014-0804-z
In this article, the authors gathered data on the student performance of virtual schools in Ohio and the growth of student enrollment in those schools and compared both to the growth and performance of traditional brick and mortar schools. The measures they used for student performance in each school were 1) the Ohio Department of Education “Performance Index” score of each school, “a weighted indicator of student performance on the proficiency and achievement tests, with scores ranging from 0 to 120” and 2) each school’s “designation”, or ranking, assigned by the Ohio department of education based on Performance Index scores, whether or not the school has met AYP, the “indicators” met, and the school’s “value-added data.” These designations were ranked Excellent with Distinction, Excellent, Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch, or Academic Emergency. All of the data was collected from the Ohio Department of Education.
They found that from 2007 to 2011, Ohio virtual school enrollment grew by 57.1%, and over the same period of time, traditional school enrollment dropped by 2.7%. When comparing Performance Index scores of those schools during the same time period, they found that virtual schools’ Performance Index scores hovered between 76.4 to 78.0 (out of 120) without showing a clear trend upward or downward. At the same time, traditional schools showed growth on the Performance Index, increasing from 90.3 to 94.5. 13.2% of traditional schools in 2011 were given the designation of Excellent with Distinction whereas no virtual schools during the period of 2007 to 2011 were awarded that designation. Only one virtual school during one year of the five year range even achieved the designation of Excellent whereas 38% of traditional schools were designated as Excellent in 2011. 18.5 percent of virtual schools were ranked as Academic Watch in 2011 and 14.8% as Academic Emergency versus 5.6% and 4.8% respectively for traditional schools.
The authors argue that the significantly lower results from virtual school students when compared to traditional school students and the failure to show improvement and growth (except in number of students enrolled) should be cause for concern as the rapid expansion of Ohio virtual schools continues.
The authors put forth several theories about what is causing the worse performance of virtual schools students, but they are unwilling to commit to any one of those theories without further research. The authors cite studies that have shown that virtual schools are more attractive to students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students, two groups that typically score lower on standardized achievement measures. The schools directly advertise to both groups and are required to provide a computer to each student, something that disadvantaged students may not be able to afford otherwise. But the authors are not willing to fully embrace this theory, because it is not only students from these two groups who are performing poorly in virtual schools but students from all groups. They did not however provide specific evidence of this (unless one of the criteria for the school “designation” indicates the performance of all students. A couple of those criteria were only listed and not described in this article, but I think AYP requires some demographic data). The authors suggest that it could also be the delivery method of the virtual education programs that is undermining student achievement results, but again, they are not convinced of this, because it requires further research.
A final theory that the authors address is the possibility that because virtual schools are busy trying to recruits students and the public funding that accompanies their enrollment and because those driving the development virtual schools are not necessarily educators–business leaders, school reform organizations, for-profit and nonprofit service providers, etc–student achievement might not be the priority of all stakeholders. They generously refer to an “unintentional lack of focus on student achievement.” They conclude that virtual schools risk their legitimacy if they cannot find a way to improve student performance.
I found this article to be easy to understand with the data and conclusions laid out clearly. I appreciated that the authors were unwilling to commit to conclusions that fell outside the bounds of their study, no matter how tempting, and instead presented several possible explanations that would require further research. The authors cite a forthcoming (at the time of publication) article of their own that examines this topic further, so I looked up that article as well. That may be next week’s article review if I gain any further enlightenment from it.
One thing that stopped me cold in this article was the mention of “for-profit” virtual schools. It made me wonder how on earth a publicly funded K-12 school could be run for profit? Do they make the kids run car washes and bake sales during recess? What product are they selling? Or is the profit taken from the state funding that is intended for the students’ education? I was not aware of the existence of for-profit K-12 schools until now, but I find the concept rather disturbing. Anyway that could be a topic for another article review.
On a personal note, I found this article especially interesting because it felt like a study I could have done. Sometimes the statistical methods used in academic papers fly right over my head, but there was no statistical wizardry involved in the project documented and the data collection was not to onerous. I found this rather encouraging since I’ve always been rather intimidated by academic writing.
Here is their additional article on the topic if you want to read more:
Wang, Y., & Decker, J. R. (2014). Examining digital inequities in Ohio’s K-12 virtual schools: implications for educational leaders and policymakers. International Journal of Educational Reform, 23(4), 294-314. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/eps_facpub/19