What You Need to Know (But Never Hear) About Online Schools

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Originally published by the Heartland Institute – February 21, 2018

Is digital learning a solution or a problem for academically-at risk students?  In this recent piece in the New York Times, the author concludes the latter.

But was it really online learning that caused the students to fall behind?

Data from more than 24,000 students who enrolled in our partner online schools in the fall of 2017 showed that, upon enrollment, only an astonishing 5 percent of these students were prepared to learn grade-level content based on commercially-available readiness assessments. Overwhelming numbers of students who arrive at online schools are behind grade level. The reasons they struggled in the classroom, and why they selected an online school option, often included bullying, a medical condition, or the very fact that they were struggling academically in the traditional school.

With online schools, just like traditional schools, persistence is one of the keys to academic achievement. Based on our 2016-2017 state assessment data, English Language Arts students actually demonstrated a significant increase in proficiency as result of online study. Though only 38 percent of English Language Arts students were proficient upon enrollment, within two years, a majority of these students, 54 percent, tested as proficient.

It’s not just high school students behind in grade level upon enrollment who demonstrated a leap in academic gains over time in the virtual classroom. After being tested in the spring of both 2016 and 2017, 10 to 15 percent of students in grades 4 through 8, who were behind grade level in English Language Arts upon enrollment, became proficient within one year. Similarly, 4 to 11 percent of new students who were behind in math became proficient within one year.

The fact that higher numbers of academically-challenged students are selecting online school options after falling behind in traditional classrooms is not the fault of online learning. It suggests too few suitable alternatives exist.

Online educators must continue to focus on improving outcomes for all, and hard work is being done in that area. I agree that many academically-challenged students would, in fact, benefit in a face-to-face classroom setting. But often that’s simply not possible. Should these students be confined to a setting that is not working? Or should they have the option, and the opportunity, to succeed in an online model?  I suggest the latter option is preferable.

– Kevin P. Chavous, an attorney, author, education reform activist and President of Academics, Policy and Schools for K12 Inc. He served as a member of the Council of the District of Columbia from January 1993 to January 2005.

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