My nephew’s senior year in high school is already different from mine in any number of ways—the iPhones, the Facebook account, an online encyclopedia of college essay ideas. But perhaps most astonishing is what I realized only after I talked to him about his daily routine: just how little time he's physically in a school.
This semester, he’s taking two of his classes virtually, and even for the rest, so much of his coursework is done on the Web that he rarely needs to go into the building. By the time he graduates next year, he’ll have logged nearly a full semester's worth of credits from completely virtual classes.
Everyone in his school does this at least once: thanks to a 2011 law, students in Florida, where he lives, are actually required to take a cyber course as a prerequisite to graduate. He knocked that off pretty quickly during his junior year, found that he liked the do-it-yourself approach to learning, and started to stack his schedule with them: U.S. history, AP environmental science, pre-calculus and two levels of Spanish. For his final semester next year, he’s planning to take at least two more online: perhaps U.S. government and math.
My nephew loves the freedom, which lets him work a part-time job at a local restaurant. His cyber classes are run by a public institution called the Florida Virtual School, the country’s oldest and largest statewide web-based high school; they let him do his coursework anytime he feels like it, with teachers on call from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. And there’s one other appeal, a timeless lure for a 17-year-old: “They’re easy credits,” he said.
It turns out that Ryan has a lot of company. Colleges might get all the attention for going online, in part because big brand names like MIT and Harvard now offer virtual courses for free around the world, but online schooling at the K-12 level has exploded over the past 20 years. As many as 5 million out of the country's 54 million K-through-12 grade students have taken at least one online class. And more than 300,000 kids, some as young as five years old, were full-time online students during the 2013-14 school year—with little in the way of in-person instruction, no homeroom, no cafeteria food, no running around the track for gym class.
Virtual classes have some real advantages for school systems and families: they’re usually cheaper than running a brick-and-mortar classroom, and can be especially helpful for a variety of special-needs students. And they’ve become a way for politicians to claim the mantle of innovation. On the 2016 presidential campaign trail, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker early in his ill-fated White House bid had touted his record lifting limits on the number of virtual schools that can open in his state; last month, when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told a conservative conference that he had helped foster “the largest virtual school in the country by far,” he was talking about the one that educates my nephew. Florida Virtual School offers more than 150 free classes to in-state students, with a slightly smaller roster available to students in the other 49 states and more than 65 countries.
But what kind of education are my nephew and his far-flung classmates actually getting? This is a much harder question to answer. As I began looking into it, I found that quality, peer-reviewed research into virtual schooling is virtually nil. Where online schools have produced results that have actually been studied, the grades aren’t pretty. According to the latest findings of the National Education Policy Center, a nonprofit housed at the University of Colorado-Boulder, most students enrolled in full-time virtual schools do not perform as well as their classmates attending brick-and-mortar schools. Retention rates show a high level of churn, raising questions about just how cost effective it is to be funneling taxpayer dollars to online operations. And while the state standards that teachers must meet to work in a virtual classroom are largely the same as in traditional brick-and-mortar schools, we know very little about what makes for a quality online instructor.
This might seem a logical place for Washington to step in, if only to start gathering some data: unlike normal public schools, these virtual schools can cross state lines and some are run by national companies. For this story I called the key congressional committee offices in the House and Senate and federal education authorities, and none of them reported back that they had this issue on their front burner. The Department of Education supports technology in the broad sense, but specifically stays out of the question of how it’s administered.
Virtual schooling is one of the biggest shifts in generations in how education works, but the last federal education bill was signed in 2002, before these schools existed at any scale. The current rewrite being hashed out this fall by the two Republican-led chambers is aimed more at getting Washington out of the education business than in finding new responsibilities to shoulder. If a final law even is signed by President Barack Obama, virtual schools are likely to get only a passing mention. In the meantime, it’s not at all clear that taxpayers and parents know what they’re getting.
“It’s not that the technology can’t contribute in some way—it’s that the technology is not capable of delivering on the claims being made for it,” Alex Molnar, a University of Colorado research processor and publications director at the National Education Policy Center, told me. His organization has been conducting annual studies since 2013 on U.S. virtual schools; its most recent report included a call for a moratorium on new online schools, more clearly defined teacher training and license requirements and a major infusion of state- and federally-funded research and data collection on existing online education efforts.
“Technology in classrooms” was—and still is—a mantra for many educators, including Obama, who last fall outlined a five-year plan to get nearly all U.S. students connected to high-speed wireless systems in their schools and libraries. But this is something different: technology that can eliminate the classroom entirely. And the more I asked, the more I realized a big experiment is being run on students—a study where it’s unclear what the results are, or who is even keeping track.
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT actually helped push the virtual school snowball into motion with a pioneering grant back in 1996, when the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and not everyone had an email address. Inspired by a few experiments in online learning, the Education Department gave a five-year award to Hudson Public Schools in Massachusetts to build its effort nationwide. In the 1997-98 school year, the Virtual High School offered about two dozen web-based courses to 500 students in 27 schools spread across 10 states.
“It was really an effort to see if you can teach online in a quality way, where students learned as well,” said Barbara Stein, a former member of the Virtual High School’s board of directors.
Since the mid-90s, the Virtual High School has seen student enrollments in its supplemental courses grow by about 10 percent per year, with more than 160,000 enrollments from U.S. and international students. Similar growth spurts have happened for the entire industry. Public schools in every state offer some form of online coursework, and in five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, and Virginia—students are actually required to take at least one online or partly-digital class to graduate from high school. In 30 states and Washington D.C., there are fully-online schools available for students across their states, meaning it’s possible to spend a year in school without ever walking through a classroom door. The Florida Virtual School stands out with its international division for students outside the U.S. Individual school district and charter schools have also set up virtual classrooms, while traditional brick-and-mortar schools have reconfigured their daily routine with so-called “blended” learning that incorporates online elements into in-person lessons.
Like my nephew, many students like the convenience. Parents embrace them for other reasons too, like military families frequently on the move and home-school moms and dads who struggle in teaching their kids an unfamiliar or tricky subject. Many online students have particular needs that aren’t well-served by physical schools: they’re aspiring actors or traveling athletes, or disabled, or transgendered and likely to be threatened in physical schools. Many students can also be very expensive to educate. For some, online education is a huge win for both families and their districts.
Online educators make several more points about what their schools have to offer. Students have personal-tailored classwork that they can take at their own pace. Specialized subjects can be now be taught in out-of-the-way or rural school districts where an experienced teacher—think Chinese or computer science—isn’t always available. Lessons can be taken all year and are not subject to lengthy holiday and vacation breaks found on a typical public school calendar. Snow days and missed school buses aren’t a problem. In theory, virtual schooling sounds like a godsend for gifted kids in communities with troubled schools. It also has the potential to help people who never finished high school and want to get an actual diploma without having to physically step back into the classroom.
But that flexibility and independence is also its problem: with online schools, it’s notoriously difficult to tell if they are delivering students a decent education. It’s hard enough to track the performance of normal schools; online classes are dispersed, with a large variety of types of students; some crossing both district and state lines, scrambling the traditional ways the education system holds schools accountable, or even tracks who goes to them.
Virtual schools have grown enough to inspire a backlash from some worried teachers, unions, academics, state legislators and even the NCAA. In 2012, Massachusetts passed a law limiting the growth of virtual schools to three over the ensuing three years, while also capping the number of students in the state who could get into the program. Illinois has a three-year moratorium through 2016 on new virtual charter schools outside of Chicago. In Pennsylvania, which has seen some of the largest churn in online school attendance, the state Department of Education over a two-year period rejected 14 applications for new full-time virtual charter schools. Idaho had planned to mandate two virtual classes as a high school graduation requirement, but the state Board of Education in 2012 put the brakes on the plan.
For state-based policymakers making rules on virtual schools across the country—the latest National Education Policy Center review counted 131 bills on the issue introduced last year across 36 states—much of the action is happening in an information vacuum. There’s a large gap in the quality of federal and state-funded research into the benefits of online education, compared with what we know about traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Some of the studies on the quality of online education have been grim. Chalkbeat Colorado, an education newsletter, reported in 2011 that half of the online students enrolled in the state’s 10 largest virtual schools had left within a year. While some of the students returned to their old schools, the article found that one of eight online students in Colorado had dropped out permanently, a rate four times the state average.
Much of the debate over virtual schooling has gotten tied up with some of the specific companies that run online schools—especially K12 Inc., the country’s largest private operator of public schools. It counts almost 100 schools and about 100,000 students, about 35 percent of the total enrollment in full-time online schools. The Herndon, Va.-based company has come under fire for focusing on profits over student performance. The NCAA said last year that it would not accept credits from 24 of K12’s online high schools.
Of course, everything in education is thorny and hard to measure—nobody really knows what makes teachers effective, and how to track student results is one of most contentious issues in the field. But even with all those question marks, online education is its own kind of void. “More than 20 years after the first virtual schools began, there continues to be a deficit of empirical, longitudinal research to guide the practice and policy of virtual schooling,” the latest NEPC report concluded.
The industry agrees: The International Association for K-12 Online Learning, also known as iNACOL, acknowledged there are “important gaps in the knowledge base in this emerging field” and actually wants the government to start paying closer attention. In a 2012 policy paper, the group urged Washington to pay for baseline data like information on student demographics, course and program enrollments.
Even amid the uncertainty, some proposals have started to arise. Colorado-based Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm focused on and generally supportive of online education, wants to see some of the policy at the state level shift to treat virtual schools by taking into account some of their unique circumstances. Online students tend to be older than typical students, the group points out; they also have fewer credits and more likely to move around. So it recommends a separate reporting system so that online student progress can be tracked on it own. It also suggests expanding some measurements: online high schools and traditional schools should all get credit for graduating students within five or six years rather than four, for instance.
SO WHATS BEING done about online education at the federal level?
I contacted about two dozen education experts for this story, including a top Education Department technology official and key members of Congress. They told me they’ve largely left the issue to the states in part because of the general sense in Washington that the government has overplayed its hand in local school accountability.
This fall, Congress is making a serious run at passing a new education bill—the first since the No Child Left Behind law, which took effect in 2002. The House and Senate-passed bills would allow states and local school districts to use federal dollars to create or expand digital learning programs. The Senate version, known as the Every Child Achieves Act, promises money for online courses and getting students mobile devices, though the funds would be tied to the annual appropriations process. Neither version has a mandate in how any of this must be done, and no specific accountability measurements.
While the Obama administration has touted turning classrooms into 21st century models of online savvy, it is similarly sitting this one out. “I don’t think it’s wise to mandate the way a program is delivered,” Richard Culatta, director of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology, told me.
He said he hadn’t studied criticism of specific for-profit education companies and didn’t have data on how online schooling sized up against traditional schools—although he did allow that there were things that concerned him about how online education worked in real life. “The part I’m worried about is when it’s literally just clicking through an online PowerPoint,” Culata said. “With the investment we’ve made in the country for technology, that’s not the type of learning we’d like to see.”
Many of the people I spoke with shied away from saying Washington had a significant role to play in what is happening with online learning, although there does appear to be some appetite for federal involvement: in a POLITICO Agenda survey of education policy experts across the country, two-thirds of respondents endorsed the notion that the federal government should have a "leadership role in determining standards for online/virtual schools."
Kusler, who runs government relations at the National Education Association,
the major union for teachers, said it was difficult to define Washington’s role
with online schools, noting the policy disparity across different states, with
some running fully online schools and others offering no such programs. At the
federal level, she cautioned against expecting too much when in the current
political dynamics “where Congress is trying to shrink the role of the federal
government” on education policy. “I
think what is probably more helpful is sort of the best practices," she
Kristen Amundson, a former Virginia House delegate and now executive director at the National Association of State Boards of Education, favored federal engagement, including more grant money for states “doing interesting things with online education.” But even here, she said it's a long shot until “a different fiscal climate” comes to Washington.
Regardless of the politics, what became clear in my reporting is that online education has clearly become a national issue, one that hops the boundaries of traditional state-by-state, district-by-district educational management. While my nephew has every intention of graduating from his Tampa high school, he could conceivably move across the country three times during his senior year and never have to change math teachers. It’s a pretty transformative concept, but it is also a black box where it’s unclear who exactly is supposed to ensure the final product is any good. My nephew tells me he’s gotten all A’s in his online courses. If I were a college, I wouldn’t know what to make of that transcript.
Molnar, who has been studying classroom technology issues since the early 1990s,
said he’s not surprised that the growing national appetite for online learning
hasn’t been matched by a similar enthusiasm for holding this new frontier
accountable. “There’s a very strong socio-political incentive," he
said, "to go with the virtual flow.”