Virtual charter schools can give students who are falling behind in traditional schools a chance to find success in an alternative learning environment. But can virtual charter schools fully replace the traditional face-to-face school experience?
New York University professor June Ahn, the author of a new study examining the state of Ohio’s virtual charter schools published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, doesn’t think the current virtual school model can do that. In fact, he said that thinking of virtual charter schools as complete alternatives to traditional schooling might even be contributing to students’ poor academic performance.
“I think packaging this as a school might be setting us up for failure,” Ahn said, referring to virtual charter schools. “School is a lot more than just putting content up online.”
In Ohio, students who want to take even just one online course—whether it’s to make up for a course they failed or to take an advanced course in a subject they excel in—must opt out of their local school entirely and take all of their courses online. They do not have the option to combine elements of face-to-face schooling with online studies in a virtual charter school. As a result, some students may not be getting the social and emotional support they need to be successful in virtual charter school programs, the study said.
According to Ahn, students attending virtual (online-only) charter schools, especially those who enrolled because they were falling behind, are missing out on what he called “the rich social ecosystem” of relationships with peers and teachers that could support and motivate their learning.
The study took a close look at the demographics of students enrolled in Ohio’s virtual charter schools. It found that the majority of students who attend virtual charter schools are low-achieving; they are also more likely to be designated as special education and more likely to have repeated a prior grade than their traditional brick-and-mortar school counterparts. While some of these students might benefit from the flexible learning environment offered by virtual charter schools, others will continue to fail if they don’t have anyone to help guide their studies.
“If they failed in brick-and-mortar schools because they lack self-motivation, independent learning skills, parental support and/or a quiet, stable place to do schoolwork, they are even less likely to do well in a virtual school,” the study said.
The study echoed findings from a national study released in October 2015 by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Mathematica Policy Research and the Center on Reinventing Public Education. That study showed that students attending virtual charter schools produced academic results in math that were the equivalent of what would be expected if a student had skipped 180 days of school – virtually a full year’s worth of classes.
According to the new study, Ohio has over 35,000 students enrolled in virtual charter schools. And even though that number accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s total student population, according to 2012-13 school year data, the online virtual charter sector in Ohio is experiencing significant growth: a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the last four years.