Tuesday, March 11, 2014
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WHAT ARE VIRTUAL SCHOOLS?
Originally conceived as a way to educate homeschoolers, full-time virtual charter schools have recently emerged as an alternative to public schools for a wide range of students, from bored overachievers to victims of bullying.
The virtual schools are paid for by taxpayers, but the students learn largely from home, with lessons delivered online from teachers tens, hundreds or even thousands of miles away. There is no schoolhouse, playground, gymnasium or lunch hall, although under some models students will occasionally meet for face-time sessions with each other and an educator.
In lower grades – virtual schools start at kindergarten – the programs typically rely on parents who act as “learning coaches,” following instructions that appear on their child’s computer. Older students do most of the work online themselves.
Teachers monitor and grade students remotely. They answer questions online or by telephone. Major national online teaching companies such as K12 Inc. have teacher-student ratios as high as 60 to 1.
– Colin Woodard
• ADDITIONAL READING
U.S. Dept. of Education 2009 study comparing virtual and conventional
Three university studies on virtual schools: Western Michigan University/NEPC
2011 CREDO (Stanford) study on Pennsylvania charter schools
K12, which was co-founded by convicted junk bond trader Michael Milken in 1999, counters that the studies and investigations of their record are flawed, unfair or both.
Adequate Yearly Progress is a poor metric, as it judges how many students have achieved competency, rather than how much they've progressed, says Jeff Kwitowski, the company's senior vice president for public affairs. "Most educators agree this is the key of measuring if a school is effective," he says. "One of the benefits of online education is that you can tailor teaching to the individual student. If you can provide an individual education, you should have individualization of assessment."
Kwitowski instead pointed to a recent study by researchers from the University of Arkansas in which individual students at the K12-managed Arkansas Virtual Academy were paired with demographically similar students at conventional schools in their hometowns. Between 2009 and 2011, the virtual students performed 5 percent better on math tests and 3 percent better in reading, with students in grades 4 to 6 accounting for most of the gains.
As for political giving, Kwitowski says his company is "extraordinarily small" compared to teachers unions such as the National Education Association, which oppose much of its agenda. "We support individuals who believe in expanding education options for children," he said.
Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: