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Thursday, March 29, 2012

On-line schools should prove their worth before being allowed to expand

From the Orlando Sentinel's editorial board

Like death and taxes, reports of America's education demise have become inevitable.

The latest comes from the Council on Foreign Relations in its report, "U.S. Education Reform and National Security":

"Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy and grow its economy."

Tough to argue when one out of every four students isn't earning a high-school diploma, and barely 22 percent of U.S. high-schoolers measure "college ready" in all of their core subjects.

No wonder Florida's Board of Education on Tuesday listened as Florida public-school and college leaders delivered the saving gospel of expanded online learning.

Nationally, virtual schools are the fastest-growing traditional public-school alternative. For example, Florida Virtual School, which started in 1997 with only 77 students, served more than 122,000 students during the 2010-11 school year.

Digital devotees, such as Gov. Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson, say students learn faster and cheaper — Florida Virtual School says it shaves $2,100 off the cost of the same education at regular public schools. That's a bonus in these cash-strapped school times.

However, online learning isn't without potential minuses. Researchers at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado last year found that students plus an online education equals less accountability.

The report also questioned the charge toward full-time virtual schools, noting the lack of well-regarded research that shows virtual schools are an adequate replacement for orthodox teaching.

Similarly, critics have questioned Florida Virtual School's accountability and performance. In particular, the "mastery-based" concept, which gives pupils the option of retaking tests (with new questions) until they earn an acceptable score. Not exactly an even playing field when comparing results to traditional schools where teachers have discretion whether or not to re-administer tests.

Exploring learning options to give students the best chance to succeed is the responsible thing for state education officials to do.

So, too, is seeking solid evidence that online learning delivers superior or at least comparable results, and beefing up accountability, before expanding the virtual landscape.

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