As Enrollment in Virtual Schools Grows, Some Question Their Effectiveness

Feb 13, 2017

There is a debate nationwide over the effectiveness of online education, and Oklahoma isn’t immune to it. Here, enrollment in virtual schools is booming, but the schools are performing poorly. There are also questions about the companies that run these schools and their financial practices.

Opponents to online education say the state should stop supporting virtual schools until there’s more information about them. But, others say they are vital to certain types of students. 

Throughout middle school, Toby Carter’s teachers struggled to keep him challenged.

“Normally, by the time my class in Coyle was done with one lesson, I could have been done with that lesson and the next three," Carter said.

Carter is a thin, 14-year-old boy with straight brown hair and glasses.

He lives in a rural part of Oklahoma and attended a small rural school through the eighth grade. This year, however, he switched to the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy—an online school. He likes it because he can go at his own pace. 

“I’ve always been a really fast learner, and this way I’m not being held back by anything," he said.

Sitting at his kitchen table, with his computer in front of him, Carter clicks through his schedule and pulls up a recording of his algebra class.

"It’s sort of like a conference meeting. A virtual conference meeting," he said. "We’ve got a little chat area over in the bottom corner [of the screen], and above it we’ve got participation.” 

He said his teachers and classmates talk via chat, email and phone. And the schedule is more like a college schedule. He has a few classes a day and for the rest of the time he works on his own.

More and more kids are choosing online education, as enrollment booms in the state and across the nation. From 2013 to 2014, enrollment in Oklahoma virtual schools nearly tripled.

A recent survey showed that a lot of students come because of bullying. Some need a flexible schedule while they pursue athletics, or other goals. Others are struggling academically in regular school and need a new option.

Mary Sue Backus, a professor of education law at the University of Oklahoma understands the lure of virtual schools...

"Virtual charter schools seem like the Panacea, right? We can fix public education."

...but, she’s not entirely sold on them.

"The problem is there’s no research to support the effectiveness of a fully online education in the K-12 context," she said.

Many studies show that kids in virtual school perform worse than students in regular school. There are five online schools in Oklahoma, and those with present data  have Cs, Ds, and Fs on the state school report card. Their graduation rate is also really low— it’s between 28 and 33 percent. The state average is about 80 percent.

"So if there was a trend or a theme of what we’re seeing in virtual education across the country, it’s that it doesn’t work very well."

But the Superintendent at Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, Sheryl Tatum, said there are a couple reasons for these low scores. First of all, she said, almost half of the kids coming in are at-risk students that are behind on credits.

Second, the mobility rate is extremely high. A lot of the students are either transferring in or out throughout the year, and almost 40 percent of the kids that sign up leave before the year is over.

"Even in brick and mortar schools,"  Tatum said, "It doesn’t matter. The schools that have higher mobility rates struggle more with test scores."

She also said parents and students don’t understand how much organization and time management is required for online schooling.

"Um, if we could help them to understand that, then they would all come in and be successful," she said,  "And so we actually set up in our program - we have a pre-enrollment conference."

Tatum says the kids that do stay make big gains. 

But Mary Sue Backus, the law professor at OU, said she has one other big problem with virtual schools.

"The red flag for me on virtual schools is the involvement of the for profit sector."

Big companies run these schools. The most prominent are K12 and Connections Academy. Oklahoma has schools run by both.

Backus worries that these companies are more concerned with making money than they are educating children.

"The completion rates are not that important to the for-profit companies. What’s important to them is enrollment which attaches to the funding formula, which brings in the dollars," she said.

K-12 earned about $700 million in 2012, with most of that coming from running public schools nationwide.

Dr. Rebecca Wilkinson, the Executive Director of the board that over sees virtual schools in the state, said they are working to address these concerns. The board has only been in place since January, and in the past eight months they’ve established some new regulations that force online schools to be more accountable.

"For example they must submit their external audit, they have to submit test scores to us to let us monitor to see how students are working."

Wilkinson said her board has also begun collecting trend data, and is looking nationwide for ideas on how to improve virtual schools in the state.

Correction: The story originally reported that 83 percent of students leave before the school year is over. This is incorrect. 39 percent of students leave before the school year is over. 83 percent is the school's mobility rate, which is a measure of how many students are transferring in and out of a school.