A review of the latest report on virtual schools from the NEPC

The National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) reports on virtual schools and related issues fairly regularly, and has recently issued its 91-page report Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2015: Politics, Performance, Policy, and Research Evidence. Similar to past NEPC reports (see for example comments here and here), I find that the latest study has a mix of useful information, recommendations with which I agree, and recommendations with which I disagree. In some cases statements and recommendations are unsupported by the evidence that the report presents.

Among the findings and recommendations that I appreciate are the following:

  • “[S]tate education agencies and the federal National Center for Education Statistics clearly identify full-time virtual-schools in their datasets, distinguishing them from other instructional models.” This would be an incredibly valuable. In the last couple of years an analogous effort has taken place in post-secondary education, and a similar approach would benefit research and policy in K-12 education.
  • “Develop new accountability structures for virtual schools” and “promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools.” Keeping Pace research supports the concept of new accountability structures for online schools. We have explored this issue in School Accountability in the Digital Age and in two separate blog posts.
  • “Develop a comprehensive system of summative and formative assessments of student achievement, shifting assessment from a focus on time- and place-related requirements to a focus on student mastery of curricular objectives.” Implementing this recommendation would be challenging on many levels, but worthwhile. In our as yet unpublished research into examples of success in blended learning, we are finding schools that are using NWEA MAP or similar sets of assessments in order to move closer to this objective.
  • “Define new certification training and relevant teacher licensure requirements and continually improve online teaching models through comprehensive professional development.” Although I’m not convinced that new certifications are ideal, there is no doubt that extensive professional development is a key component of successful programs, such as in Clark County, NV. Keeping Pace research also suggests the need for changes to teacher licensure, although the Keeping Pace and NEPC recommendations aren’t exactly aligned.

Areas where I believe the evidence doesn’t support the NEPC findings include:

  • In the introduction, the report characterizes the “virtual school expansion” as “fast-growing.” The same introduction includes this statement: “A total of 400 full-time virtual schools enrolling an estimated 263,705 students were identified, an enrollment increase of some 2,000 students since last year’s report.” NEPC’s numbers suggest a growth rate of less than 1%--which is hard to reconcile with the statement that the sector is “fast-growing.” The numbers that Keeping Pace 2014 reported are larger (about 315,000 students and a 6.2% growth rate), but they are still very small relative to K-12 education as a whole.
  • The report discusses, fairly extensively, the number of introduced legislative bills related to online schools that failed, and ascribes importance to these failed bills. In some new areas, such as data privacy, the number of introduced bills can be indicative of interest and predictive of future activity. For a topic such as online schools that is fairly mature, however, proposed or introduced bills are not necessarily predictive. At the very least, bills that pass are orders of magnitude more important than those that fail, and the long discussion confuses these different categories.
  • Finally, in calling for new research and accountability systems, the report suggests that current methods of measurement are not ideal. Yet it appears that the authors base some of their findings and recommendations on the very metrics (e.g. measures of student proficiency) that they deem inadequate.

The report is 91 pages long, and includes many additional findings and recommendations. One area that I’ll review in an upcoming post will be the exploration into numbers of minority, low-income, and special education students in online schools—which is among the most valuable areas of the report.