Virtual Schools Bring Real Concerns About Quality : NPR Ed E-learning in K-12 is a growing trend, but many schools are underperformers. What's to be done?

Virtual Schools Bring Real Concerns About Quality

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While some school districts are turning to e-learning as a snow day stopgap, other schools are going further - a lot further. They're asking kids to log on and learn remotely every day. Anya Kamenetz with the NPR Ed team joins me now to talk about the rise of e-learning and what the research says about when it works and when it doesn't. And Anya, first, let's talk numbers. How many K through 12 students are actually enrolled in online schools?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Well, I was surprised by the extent of this phenomenon. There are 200,000 students as of 2013 enrolled full-time in K-12 schools. And this is happening across 33 states.

CORNISH: And I get using it for snow days, but beyond that - I mean, why? What's in it for schools?

KAMENETZ: Well, a big reason is cost-savings, especially in large rural states. Virtual schools can allow students to take, say, an AP class or a foreign language that their school doesn't offer. And then there's credit recovery, you know, for states that have a lot of students that are possibly falling behind. They can allow them the possibility to take a extra class over the summer or over vacation and catch up and graduate on time.

CORNISH: You mentioned AP classes or foreign language, but give us more of a sense of the typical virtual school day. I mean, what are these classes like?

KAMENETZ: Well, some students may be at home. They may be at the library, at a computer lab. They have a laptop. They log on in the morning. They can see their assignments on a dashboard. Many of them - they can move through at their own pace, reading, doing an assignment, a project. And then there are sort of videoconferencing or online conferencing that happens in real-time with teachers and with other students. And they're also, in most cases, able to contact their teachers by text message or by instant message as well.

CORNISH: What are the concerns about e-learning though? I mean, can students really learn this way?

KAMENETZ: Well, you know, in many cases they can, but there are big quality divides in the world of online learning providers. And a lot of that has to do with the business model. So most full-time students are enrolled at schools run by these companies - K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. And they've been growing at a really fast clip over the last few years, but a report that came out last year found that of the full-time virtual schools that have academic ratings, a full two thirds of them are academically unacceptable. And the graduation rates are less than half the average of all public schools.

CORNISH: Yikes. I mean, do you actually have good examples of schools using e-learning and getting a positive result?

KAMENETZ: Yeah, there are counterexamples. Florida Virtual School, for example, is a very large online school. It's actually a public school district of the state of Florida, and it has really good outcomes. The students on state tests and on AP exams - they do as well or better than the average of all Florida students.

CORNISH: So I get that this research is sort of new, but, I mean, do we have a sense yet of a final judgment - right? I mean, are online schools a good idea - a terrible one?

KAMENETZ: They can be both, but you really have to scrutinize not just the fact that they're online but how the model is working. So, you know, for these kind of for-profits, we're finding that they're spending much less money on teachers, and you kind of get what you pay for. But overall, you know, what scholars are recommending is that states set up better quality safeguards before they allow more and more of these virtual schools to proliferate.

CORNISH: That's Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team. Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie.

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