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virtual schools

It was the best of times and the worst of times for virtual schools, which allow students to go to school without ever stepping into a school building.

Online schools received yet another hearty endorsement last Friday from the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who doubled down on her opinion that these schools should expand – without any hint that she recognizes there are serious quality-control issues.

Meanwhile, an important study published last week in Education Researcher added to the growing pile of research that reveals that online-only schools tend to attract and harm the most vulnerable students. The study from RAND Corporation and New York University found that Ohio students with low test scores who enroll in online-only schools tend to fall even further behind. High-performing students fare better, but they still do worse than they would have done if they had not enrolled in a virtual school, according to the study.

The findings for the lowest achieving students are particularly troubling considering the high stakes for children who are already on the edge of failure. And, as it turns out, low-performing students tend to be drawn to cyber charter schools, the study found.

“If that’s a population they want to serve, then they need to design a system that is better for [those] students,” said Andrew McEachin, of RAND Corporation, an author of the new report.

Another idea: Traditional schools could look at this as an opportunity to create a more effective model for at-risk students. Educators could find out why students are lured to attend cyber schools, and then incorporate some of what students want into those programs at in-person schools.

Related: Opinion: New era of education passion, protest and politics will follow the DeVos confirmation

“If they want more flexibility or more autonomy, then maybe there’s a way to tinker with their own systems to make these students feel more welcome,” McEachin said.

The study’s findings are not unexpected. A high-profile study in 2015 from Stanford University’s CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) and the Center on Reinventing Public Education was also bad news for the online-school sector. Some critics, however, disliked the study’s methodology. And virtual school supporters say these schools serve students who – for whatever reason – are not finding what they need in traditional schools. Advocates maintain that their success is best measured by measuring the outcome only of students who don’t drop out or leave to pursue other types of schooling.

“The study confirms much of what we know: Statewide online schools generally serve higher populations of academically at-risk and economically disadvantaged students,” Jeff Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12 Inc., a major provider of online schools, said in an email. “They also have a much higher rates of mobility. Parents often choose online schools because they are fleeing a negative situation – a failing school, bullying, or other problems.  Online schools often become schools of last resort, and for many families they are the only public school alternative available.”

All signs point to DeVos aligning herself with those who believe in allowing online schools to flourish even if they don’t show the traditional signs of success, such as high test scores or graduation rates. And she is using her new bully pulpit to cheerlead for growing the menu of options for parents and students.

“I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools,” DeVos said in a Feb. 17 interview with Axios. “I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”

Her endorsement last week wasn’t the first time she’s highlighted online schools. Before her confirmation vote in the Senate, DeVos was widely panned for circulating inordinately high (read: incorrect) four-year cohort graduation rates for cyber schools affiliated with K12, in her written responses to senators’ questions.

And, as it turns out, the Trump and DeVos era also ushered in a different kind of boom for one of the largest providers of online schools: The stock of K12 Inc. has been climbing.

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  1. I believe virtual schools can provide a viable alternative for K-12 instruction provided certain preconditions exist: (1) Assessing the student’s motivation for selecting online instruction and discouraging those with questionable intent. (2) Providing personalized instruction, not “one size fits all.” (3) Providing a face-to-face link with the physical school that includes monitoring of progress and assessment.

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