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As more schools scurry to bring technology to the classroom, some say dodgy programs are growing like weeds — and they threaten the existence of successful programs.

Too many students in virtual and blended learning schools are performing poorly, according to a new National Education Policy Center report, released last week, by Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, and Charisse Gulosino, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis. The center’s annual report about online learning for the first time took a look at blended learning, as well. It found that those schools were not doing much better than fully online schools.

“That was the shock for us,” Miron said.

Both fully online (virtual) schools and blended learning schools included in the report tended to fare worse than traditional schools on state assessments of quality. The report described this as a “red flag.”

The report suggests six solutions:

  • Slow or halt the growth of virtual and blended schools until the reasons for poor performance are identified and solved.
  • Write rules to hold schools accountable for results and take action against those who fail.
  • Require virtual and blended schools to devote more money to instruction. Specify a student-teacher ratio.
  • Mandate the reporting of data on the teachers hired and on the types of students these schools serve.
  • Promote new strategies to measure outcomes of these schools, taking into account the “unique characteristics” of the programs.
  • Support more research to identify which policies create conditions that allow high-quality virtual and blended learning schools to thrive.

Online and blended learning schools account for a small but rapidly growing part of the education ecosphere. The report counts 457 full-time virtual schools and 87 blended learning schools. (These are significantly smaller numbers than those reported by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), an advocacy organization for these types of schools. This may be because of differences in how the groups define virtual and blended-learning schools.)

For-profit schools were singled out in the report as a particularly poor-performing subset of these schools.

Officials at K12 Inc., a for-profit company that operates a significant share of the nation’s online schools, said they had noticed flaws in the data – such as missing schools and inaccurate demographic numbers. They took issue with the report’s methodology, saying that high turnover rates in online schools make it difficult to compare these schools to more traditional models. And they suggested that parents deserve choices, such as online schools, because bricks-and-mortar schools are not always the best option for some children.

“There are many brick-and-mortar schools in this country that have operated for hundreds of years and failed kids routinely,” said Margaret Jorgensen, chief academic officer at K12 Inc.

This isn’t the first time experts have urged a slower, more thoughtful approach to the expansion of online or blended learning. One of the largest blended learning networks, Rocketship Education, a California-grown charter school network, for example, has been criticized for expanding too fast.

“They are really phenomenal at marketing their schools,” Roxana Marachi, an associate professor in the Connie L. Lurie College of Education at San Jose State University, told The Hechinger Report last year. “But they have not shown they can deliver on all that they are promising.”

Miron described himself as a supporter of blended learning, which incorporates technology with face-to-face instruction. The worry, he said, is that the proliferation of unsuccessful blended learning schools will result in an outright rejection of this strategy.

“I really hope we can do it right, because if it gets labeled as a failed thing it doesn’t get a fair shot,” Miron said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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