A new study of virtual schools


by David Safier

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) just released an 80 page study, Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2013. I haven't had a chance to read its data and conclusions about online schools yet, but here's part of the information NEPC put out about the study.

In the 2010-2011 school year, 52 percent of brick-and-mortar district and charter schools met AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress], contrasted with 23.6 percent of virtual schools – a 28 percentage-point gap.  Virtual schools also enroll a far smaller percentage of low-income students, special education students, and English language learners than brick-and-mortar public schools.
“It now appears that early adopters of the virtual school model were largely home-schoolers who were used to studying alone and who generally had lots of parental guidance,” said Western Michigan University Professor Gary Miron. “As virtual schools have expanded, it appears that their performance has slipped dramatically.”


The overall cost to taxpayers for lackluster virtual schools has been significant.  Despite incurring much lower costs than brick-and-mortar schools, virtual school operators receive the same allocation as charter schools that pay for buildings, desks, textbooks, and other costs associated with more traditional school settings.


Stanford University Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban, who contributed a review of current research knowledge on virtual education to the NEPC report and has long followed education technology issues, explained: “The current climate of elementary and secondary school reform that promotes uncritical acceptance of any and all virtual education innovations is not supported by educational research. A model that is built around churn [large numbers of students withdrawing each year] is not sustainable; the unchecked growth of virtual school is essentially an education tech bubble.”


  1. Oh, then they’ll just find some other hoop for us to jump through, but I get your point. AYP makes me crazy. Current ed policy makes me crazy.

  2. Thanks for the reply and the education about AYP, Bess. I’m not at all fond of test-based assessments of schools, especially ones as questionable as this. However, there’s a tendency, which I share, to say, if you’re going to use the data against public education and say that’s one reason we have to privatize, the same evidence should be used to point out the inadequacies of privatization. I admit, it’s a questionable reply because it looks like I’m legitimizing the measurement. But if the privatization crowd finds their tools for demonizing public education can be turned against them, that makes them less eager to use them as recklessly as they do.

  3. AYP is a bogus measure. First, it’s linked to NCLB, which originally mandated 100% of students to pass the test by 2013. That is not ever going to happen! In our state, Huppenthal changed that date to 2020 with a Duncan waiver. Obama and Duncan can shoot for 100% proficiency by 3020, and it still ain’t gonna happen.

    If you’re in a low socio-economic school, you have the maximum possibility of failing AYP. And if you make it one year, don’t count on making it the following year. Scores of ELLs and students with IEPs are counted toward AYP, as are the AIMS-A scores of self-contained Ex. Ed. students.

    Here’s how it works. Math and Reading in every grade and every sub-group must have pass rates that meet the pass rate percentage. (In 2013, without a waiver that is 90 to 100% of the grade level and each sub-group). Students are disaggregated into sub-groups and if any one sub-group in any grade, does not meet the bar, the entire school fails AYP.

    So in a low SES school, one kid can be counted three times in three separate subgroups. There’s a sub-group for each minority ethnicity, a Free and Reduced Lunch sub-group, and a limited English proficient sub-group. One child can be in the free lunch sub-group, the ELL subgroup and the Hispanic subgroup. He fails his test (and there’s a good chance he will, because, he’s not English proficient,) and he fails in all three sub-groups. There goes your AYP.

    Sorry to sound off on a tangent to your post, Dave, but to me, AYP is just not a measure that counts. The people trying to destroy public education use AYP data to show failure. In fact, it is they who have failed America’s children and the still great public school system. (And I know you believe that too.)