Findings on virtual courses offered by large districts in Brookings’ educational choice research

The Brookings Institution recently released its 2014 Education Choice and Competition Index, which scores each of the 100 largest school districts (plus seven others based on their choice policies) in the United States based on a variety of factors related to choice and competition. One of the elements is “accessibility of Virtual Courses.” The rating is based on three factors: A) Does the district have publicly available policies allowing students to enroll in a variety of virtual courses that count towards graduation or matriculation;

B) Is at least 2%* of the total student population enrolled in at least one virtual course; and

C) Are no substantial costs borne by the student or family.

Districts are rated on their yes/no answers to the questions. Each question is equally weighted and worth 1/3 of a point. The district gets a 1 if it answers all questions affirmatively, a 0 if all answers are negative, or a .33 or .67 for one or two positive answers. The full explanation of ratings is here. The research was conducted via a combination of surveys/interviews of school districts, and web searches of district sites to find online course options and policies. The researchers defined online courses as having no required onsite component, and with the teacher and student remote from one another. Therefore credit recovery classes that use online content and are taken by students in a scheduled period in a computer lab would not count.

Of the 107 districts:

  • 30 (28%) said yes to all three questions. In these districts, a variety of online courses are available to students, without costs borne by the student or family, and at least 2% of the students in the district are taking online courses.
  • 47 (44%) said yes to two questions. Of these, all districts but one have online courses available and students do not have to pay, but the district reported less than 2% of students taking online courses.
  • 19 (18%) said yes to one question. In all of these cases the responding district has online courses available, but some costs are borne by students/families. Perhaps not surprisingly, in all these districts fewer than 2% of students are taking online courses.
  • 11 (10%) said no to all three questions.

These numbers are interesting in several ways, and to me the most salient point is that nearly three-quarters of all school districts have fewer than 2% of their students taking online courses. As a point of comparison, Florida—the state with the most students taking online courses that meet the Brookings report definition—has about 10% of students taking an online course each year.** As Florida is a single case, we must be cautious about ascribing too much significance to it. It provides one data point, however, that suggests that when students are given the option to take a publicly-funded online course, and are aware of the option, many more than 2% of students will take advantage of that option.

Why, then, are the numbers so much lower in these districts than in Florida? We don’t know, but possible factors include the following:

  • Florida has a long history of online learning, so students there are more familiar with online learning than students in most other states.
  • Florida has an online learning graduation requirement, and although the requirement has only recently come into force, it has likely raised awareness of online courses.
  • Perhaps students in large districts such as those in the Brookings study take online courses at lower rates than the general population of all students.
  • The large districts surveyed may have courses available but not be communicating their availability, and students don’t know they are an option.

Students should not be forced into taking online courses (with the possible exception of a single online course being required for graduation), and it’s not clear if there is an optimum percentage of students who are choosing online courses. Still, the discrepancy between the numbers in the Brookings study, and the numbers in Florida, suggest that many students still don’t have access to, and knowledge of, online course opportunities.


* It’s not clear why the 2% threshold was chosen as the level at which a district gets credit for online courses, and an argument could be made for putting the threshold at any of a variety of levels. But for a ratings system like this a threshold has to be created, and 2% is certainly defensible.


** This is a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the number of course enrollments in online courses, and the student population in Florida, both of which are known, and an estimate of how many students take more than one online course, which is not known.