NCES: 21% of US public schools offer at least one online course

According to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • During the 2015-16 school year, about 21% of public schools in the United States offered at least one course entirely online.
  • Far more high schools (58%) offered online courses than did middle schools (13%) or elementary schools (3%).
  • A higher percentage of charter schools than traditional public schools offered online courses (29% to 20%).
  • About 45% of very small schools with fewer than 100 students offered online courses, as did a very similar percentage of large schools (enrolling 1,000 students or more). Schools with between 200 and 1,000 students all had lower rates of offering online courses, at about 15%.

The top line finding that 21% of schools offered an online course feels low, even considering that these numbers are two years old, the use of online courses has almost certainly grown, and we would expect limited usage below the high school level. But it’s entirely likely that the number feels low only because we at Evergreen, and most of our colleagues, have contact with an unusual subset of schools and educators using online courses at rates higher than average. I certainly don’t discount the possibility that these numbers are exactly right.  It may also be the case a significant number of online courses being taken by students are in situations such as course choice states, or private-pay courses, such that the schools are saying that they are not providing online courses even in situations where some of their students are taking such courses.

Beyond the top line number, the relative proportions in the categories listed above all make intuitive sense. The most common use cases for online courses—credit recovery, courses that are not otherwise available at a school, and scheduling flexibility for students—apply much more to high school than to middle and elementary schools. The smallest schools are seeking online courses because they don’t have as wide a range of course offerings as larger schools. The largest schools tend to have a wider arrange of programs and opportunities for students than smaller schools, and an online program may be one of these options.

If the overall number seems perhaps a bit low, however, another number seems significantly off on the high side:

  • 14% of charter schools offered all their classes online, as did 5% of traditional public schools.

These percentages suggest that about 4,175 traditional public schools and 966 charter schools are fully online. Both numbers seem high, especially the number of fully online, non-charter schools. By comparison, the 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 528 fully online schools exist in the U.S.—about 10% of the NCES estimate. A clue to part of the discrepancy is that the NCES report shows that 20% of the fully online schools had enrollments of under 100 students, which may be schools that were ignored or missed by NEPC. Even discounting those very small schools, however, a large discrepancy remains. If further digging yields any useful information we will report it in a future post.

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