New report shows limited progress towards accountability, transparency for virtual schools

Online learning options have surged over recent years, with more than 500 full-time virtual schools and 140 blended schools enrolling more than 300,000 students combined across the nation, including Michigan, K-12 online learning is clearly picking up speed.

The report, Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2017, produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, examines virtual schools and blended schools, their impact on education and provides recommendations for policymakers.

The authors of the 2017 report found that limited progress has been made towards creating sound virtual education policies since the last inclusive report in 2015. They also found an alarming lack of trustworthy research to support virtual schools’ practices or to justify ongoing calls for continued expansion.

Authors of the report recommend that policymakers press for accountability, transparency and high standards to accommodate the rapid growth of virtual schools. They should also dedicate funding for independent, third party research to assess the quality of virtual learning programs.

They also urge policymakers and education leaders to:

  • Establish evidence-based cost formulas and accountability structures to govern virtual schools;
  • Address issues related to virtual instruction quality and draft legislation that measures and creates guidelines for online courses and programs;
  • Ensure an adequate number of high-quality teachers in virtual learning environments and develop guidelines for appropriate teacher-student ratios;
  • Examine the quality of principals in virtual schools and determine their impact on teacher quality and professional development; and
  • Create guidelines that prevent virtual schools from putting profits ahead of student performance.

The report also found a number of alarming statistics about virtual schools:

  • During the 2015-16 school year, virtual schools’ on-time graduation rates were 43.4 percent and blended schools on-time graduation rates were 43.1 percent, compared with 82.3 percent for all schools nationally.
  • Additionally, the student-to-teacher ratio at virtual schools (34 students per teacher) was more than double that of public schools (16 students per teacher).
  • These schools also enroll fewer minority students and low-income students when compared to public schools.

Although a significant amount of virtual school legislation was introduced during the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions, limited progress was made towards regulating virtual schools. Today, there are few, if any, established cost formulas or accountability structures in place that govern virtual schools. There has also been little continued progress in addressing issues related to virtual instruction quality and creating legislation that regulates online courses and programs.

Obtaining more data and third party, independent research is critical to ensuring all students have access to the best online learning options and cutting-edge education programs. Before policymakers allow the continued expansion of virtual schools, more comprehensive research is needed to address key questions regarding virtual school regulations, funding and overall performance.

Find the report on the Great Lakes Center website:

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