Brother and sister Tristan and Grace Benson live in Hobart, Ind., and are both enrolled in public school. Grace wakes by 7 a.m., gets dressed, and rides with her mom to be dropped off at her elementary school, where she’s attending third grade this year. Tristan, in 11th grade, wakes up an hour or so later, eats breakfast, and takes his laptop to his family’s basement rec room, where he dons a headset and logs in to a virtual classroom. He sometimes gets to stay in pajamas.
Tristan, 16, is one of more than approximately 300,000 K-12 public-school students—less than 1 percent of the U.S. total—enrolled at a full-time cyberschool. They study subjects like math, biology, Spanish, and U.S. history, watch teachers on webcams, and interact with fellow students, but all from home, using a computer. Since the first online charter school opened in 1994, the number of schools and students has grown steadily, with full-time cyberschool enrollees increasing around 75 percent in the past five years.
But the speedy growth of online education is meeting some resistance: Full-time public cyberschools, especially, face criticism for low scores and high turnover rates. Internet-based learning is here to stay, but its ultimate role in public education may depend on whether it can overcome performance hurdles.
Tristan’s parents pulled him out of a brick-and-mortar public high school after his first freshman semester, when his grades were struggling. “Going from middle school to high school was just hard for him,” largely due to distractions from other students, said Amy Benson, his mother. “He always asked to be homeschooled, but because I worked I thought I’d never have the time.”
The Bensons found a solution in Indiana Connections Academy, an accredited statewide cyberschool based in Indianapolis. It’s technically a public school, so tuition is free to families—along with books and computer headsets. State education funds reimburse Connections Academy for each student. On his laptop, Tristan joins a live virtual class once or twice a day, communicating with teachers and other online students through his headset or a chat window. He watches science experiments by video or does them at home (he once made a cardboard roller coaster for a physics lesson). Amy, currently laid off from a home health job, supervises Tristan when he takes tests, marks lessons as completed, and follows academic progress reports.
Students like Tristan take all their classes online, while other schools have begun offering “blended learning,” where students get instruction partially online and partially in traditional classrooms. Some states allow “course choice,” where public-school students take online classes from outside providers. Florida, Alabama, and a few other states now require students to take at least one online class in order to graduate.
During the last school year, 30 states and the District of Columbia permitted fully online, multidistrict public schools. In many cases, for-profit companies, often legally recognized as charter schools, provide the software and curriculum, contracting their services to school districts. Connections Academy, which runs Tristan’s Indiana cyberschool, is the second-largest such provider after K12 Inc., an online education company former education secretary William Bennett co-founded in 1999.
K12 Inc. has enjoyed rapid growth: Its revenue expanded from $226 million to $848 million between 2008 and 2013. Last year it operated 82 schools and enrolled around 87,800 students (up from 11,000 in 2005), according to a report from the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colo.
“I think we’ve only begun to see the potential of course choice and of online learning,” said Michael Brickman, the national policy director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice. “You’ve seen technology transform almost every other industry except education.” Brickman wrote a report for Fordham suggesting states allow students at traditional brick-and-mortar schools to take online classes from a variety of outside providers, such as the National Geographic Society and Microsoft, where students could learn how to make maps and apps.
Some online public schools are in danger of suspension, though. At Tennessee Virtual Academy, a statewide cyberschool overseen by school district officials in Union County, Tenn., 626 students barely kept their virtual classroom seats this August after the state’s education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, recommended the school bar the enrollment of any new students. The academy, operated by K12 and enrolling nearly 1,900 students through eighth grade this fall, launched three years ago. But the school’s students have made poor academic marks, achieving a Level 1, the worst rank in the state’s 1-5 rating scale to measure student progress. The Union County school board ultimately voted to let the 626 new enrollees stay, but Huffman said the cyberschool must shut down at the end of the school year unless the students improve their scores dramatically, to a Level 3.
The National Education Policy Center published a review of online public schools in March and reported (based on available data) only 44 percent of full-time high-school students at public cyberschools graduate on time, compared with the nationwide average of 79 percent. Other reports note turnover rates at some cyberschools have reached 50 percent or more (perhaps involving students who, out from beneath a teacher’s eye, felt unmotivated to log in for class).
The NEPC is calling for policymakers to “slow or stop growth in the number of virtual schools and the size of their enrollment until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”
The scrutiny seems to have made cyberschools media shy: None of the five online education providers I contacted for this story returned phone calls or emails except for Connections Academy, where a media representative failed to arrange an interview with a spokesperson, even after WORLD extended the deadline.
K12 Inc. did not return interview requests, but the company posts an annual progress report on its website: The 2014 report says state assessment scores for K12 students have dropped during the past three years as the company has grown in size, with only 69 percent of 2012/2013 students performing at or above proficiency levels in reading. Just 47 percent were proficient in math.
K12 says the scores are misleading because many students who enroll in online classes are already struggling academically: “In most states, K12 schools are generally below state performance percentages, which is to be expected given the large number of students entering K12 schools below grade level,” the report said. The company notes its students’ proficiency scores typically improve after three years of enrollment.
Brickman admitted some cyberschools were seeing poor results, but said the solution was for policymakers to hold them to high standards: “Whether you’re talking about a virtual school or a traditional school, some get the job done better than others.” Online education is essentially about providing all students access to quality courses that may be unavailable at their brick-and-mortar school, he said.
Moms and dads, at least, seem happy. Among parents of students enrolled at Connections Academy schools, nine out of 10 gave their online school a grade of A or B, and would recommend it to others, according to a survey the company conducted. Amy Benson described herself as “pretty satisfied” with Tristan’s online program: “You definitely have to be a self-learner to do it. It’s not for everybody.”
During his freshman semester at his brick-and-mortar school, Tristan had received failing grades in four classes. But during his first two semesters at Indiana Connections Academy, he failed only two difficult classes, algebra and Spanish. In his third semester last spring, Tristan passed every subject.
Whether by full-time enrollment or individual courses, online public schooling for parents not seeking Christian education seems here to stay. Well, for the most part: The 1,900 students at Tennessee Virtual Academy began cyberschool Aug. 4. If they hope to log in again next August, they’d better pay close, close attention to their webcam teacher this year.
Educational software and online private schools, like The Potter’s School, have long been popular learning options for homeschoolers. Families must pay for such services, however, making online public schools—with their taxpayer-paid tuition—an attractive alternative. Anecdotal evidence suggests some families who either homeschooled previously or planned to do so have signed up for the free option.
Cyberschools like K12 haven’t been shy about recruiting them. When the K12-operated Idaho Virtual Academy opened, homeschoolers in the state received glossy, full-color mailings inviting them to join. K12 advertises to homeschoolers on its website as well. They must pay for subject courses unless they enroll as public-school students.
Therein lies the catch: As government schools, public cyberschools use state-approved curriculum. If parents want to teach, for example, accounts of history and science that point to God’s sovereignty and creativity, they must do so on their own time—on top of mandatory cyberschool coursework.
The specter of government intrusion into home-based education has led some advocates of traditional homeschooling to join the public cyberschool critics. The Home School Legal Defense Association on its website “strongly cautions homeschoolers against enrolling in virtual charter schools,” and adds it will “not represent students enrolled in full-time charter school programs.” —D.J.D.