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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Virtual Schools, another market based refom that is failing

From the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, By Valerie Strauss

With millions of public high school students taking at least one course online, a new report says that virtual schools are too often subject to minimal oversight and that there is no-high quality research showing that cyber education is an acceptable full-time replacement for traditional classrooms.

Virtual education is expanding. Forty states now operate or have authorized virtual classes for public K-12 students, and a growing number of states are mandating that public school students take at least one online course, including Florida. In 27 states, the report says, full-time “cyber schools” are now operating, including scores of virtual charter schools. More than 200,000 students are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, and more than 30 percent of the country’s 16 million high school students have been enrolled in at least one online course.

Virtual schools will clearly be taking a larger role in public education, and it is important that state and federal governments ensure that they are high-quality.

The report, called “Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation” and released by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, lists steps needed to improve online education that include:

*There should be financial audits of these schools to figure out how much it cost to educate each student so states can reimburse them without being ripped off. Some privately run virtual schools, the report said, ask states to reimburse them for tuition at the same per-pupil funding rate as traditional schools even though they don’t have the same building and transportation costs as well as different student-teacher ratios.

*Because many schools have no way of knowing for sure who is doing the student’s work when a student is taking a course online, arrangements should be made so that students have to take exams in person, administered by a trusted organization. A few virtual schools now do this.

*Traditional accrediting agencies as well as departments of education in the states and the federal government should create a rigorous accreditation process for all cyber schools.

Of course it would have been smarter if state and federal governments had thought about this before virtual education started to explode, but rushing without much thought seems to be a hallmark of school reform these days. There are some high-quality cyber schools so there are models out there with practices that can be replicated.

Five private companies dominate the field, providing the large majority of content and services that are sold to full-time virtual schools that enroll public school students, the report says. They are K12 Inc., Education Options Inc., Apex Learning, Plato: A+LS, and Connections Education (acquired by Pearson in September 2011).

Professor Kevin G. Welner, a co-author of the report and director of the National Education Policy Center, said in a release, “There’s zero high-quality research evidence that full-time virtual schooling at the K-12 level is an adequate replacement for traditional face-to-face teaching and learning.”

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