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Online K-12 schools underperforming, study says

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 11 2012 3:29 p.m. MST

More and more students are turning to a virtual education, and not just at the college level.

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More and more students are turning to a virtual education, and not just at the college level. Some start this type of learning as early as kindergarten. As of 2011, more than 200,000 students were enrolled in virtual K-12 schools or schools that teach their students completely or primarily online, according to an article written by the Associated Press last month.

Yet a recent report by the National Education Policy Center found that these schools are not performing as well on state tests as their traditional face-to-face counterparts.

Just 27.4 percent of the virtual schools in the study met their state's No Child Left Behind benchmark in 2011, down from 30 percent the year before, while 51.4 percent of brick-and-mortar schools did, according to the report. The study looked at dozens of schools run by private management companies.

Gary Miron, lead author of the study and a professor at Western Michigan University, told The News Tribune, based in Tacoma, Wash., that these results don't justify growth.

"I don't think students are being well-served," Miron told the paper. "I don't think taxpayers are being well-served."

Yet the paper also recognized that the poor scores may be due to the kind of students flocking to virtual schools — "such as those who have fallen behind in high school," The News Tribune reported.

The Wall Street Journal recently took on the virtual education debate by looking at two different families who tried out online school: the Thomas family and the Whitehead family. The article explains how virtual learning for the Thomas family helped their daughters have more time to pursue their own interests like acting, while the Whitehead family's boys felt they were missing out on social interaction.

Last month, The New York Times published an in-depth piece on cyber schools that reported schools often recruit students "who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students."

The paper went on to report that "many educators believe there is a place for full-time virtual learning for children whose pace is extremely accelerated or those with behavioral or other issues, like teenage mothers who need to stay home with their babies. But for most children, particularly in the elementary grades, the school experience should not be replaced with online learning, they say."

Yet others, like Jim Stergios at the Boston Globe, have criticized the piece, saying "the article draws conclusions from one company and applies them broadly to online learning." Stergio even sites the Florida Virtual School model, which he says has seen much success.

But the Tampa Bay Times found that although Florida Virtual School says that in a 2007 independent analysis, online students outperformed their counterparts, only partial data for that academic year is available.

The paper found that making comparisons between online and face-to-face classes was hard.

"Limited research shows that students tend to perform better in 'blended' environments — face-to-face and online instructions," the article stated. "But federal and state education officials have warned that more rigorous research and accountability is still needed on K-12 online learning."

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com

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