Gretchen Dziadosz is executive director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.
Schools and parents scrambled last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated school closings and virtual learning solutions became the norm.
If the virus continues its deadly spread, it may be necessary to continue with these solutions. However, it is important to consider the long-term effectiveness of these programs.
Results vary greatly, especially for students with fewer resources at home and those in low-income or rural areas. As many as one-third of American homes do not have access to digital devices or the internet.
Local schools are doing what they can to bridge this divide, but it is neither cheap nor easy.
In recent years, there’s been no shortage of misleading information about virtual learning. Many programs are run by for-profit companies that may seek to prey on parents; others are well-meaning nonprofit enterprises with little hard data to back up their claims. Certainly, some virtual learning solutions, when done carefully, can be helpful — especially in a pandemic. However, lack of oversight has created a Wild West atmosphere.
Even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has issued a plea for reform of virtual schools.
For example, the for-profit K12 Inc. — the nation’s largest virtual provider — reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state of California over allegations it ran ads with misleading information about student success and inflated attendance numbers to get more money from the state.
Two Indiana virtual schools are reported to have defrauded taxpayers of more than $68 million by inflating student enrollment counts.
What research tells us
A recent analysis by the National Education Policy Center examined the Summit Learning Program, one of the most prominent virtual learning programs in the country. The program has been backed by millions of dollars from Silicon Valley philanthropists, but there is little evidence it works.
Summit claims it follows a “science-based” model, but this hasn’t been confirmed by independent researchers. When asked for further data to back its claims, Summit failed to respond.
Data show full-time virtual schools have extremely high dropout and failure rates despite primarily enrolling students from more affluent communities. A 2019 report showed a nationwide graduation rate of just over 50% for full-time virtual schools, compared to 85% for traditional schools.
Virtual learning programs also open the door to possible breaches of sensitive student data, making it critical to read privacy agreements before enrolling in any online learning platform. Even if companies promise not to sell the data, it can still be compromised. Last year, a K12 Inc. breach exposed student data to anyone with an internet connection for 19,000 students for an entire week.
Despite these and numerous other concerns with for-profit virtual companies, they often receive the same state funding as traditional schools. Legislators in many states have been loath to hold these for-profits accountable while insisting on more and more accountability from traditional public schools.
The many shortcomings of these programs should cause parents to stop and question what is right for their children in the long term.