Arguing Against Primary and Secondary Virtual Education

I am a proponent of online education. I completed my master's degree and almost my PhD online, and in my opinion, it was the best choice for me. I would happily recommend it to anyone who asks. But, my preference for online education stops at post-secondary education which brings me to the subject of this blog: my concern about the dramatic increase in primary and secondary online education. My feelings are specifically opinion, based on my own experiences, but there are others who have done the research, and it turns out, online education for these grades may not be the best option.

My Background

I am a perpetual student. I only took two breaks from school, the first from the summer of 2001 to the summer of 2003, and the second - from the summer of 2005 to the winter of 2007. Cummulatively, I have had 26 years of schooling - 19 in the traditional "brick and mortar" environment and 7 in the virtual environment. I consider myself a success because the traditional learning environment gave me social skills. In my opinion, academic achievement consists of 50% knowledge and 50% social skills. When I enrolled in my graduate program, I realized I no longer needed the social component of academia and succeeded with probably 90% knowledge and 10% social skills. But I entered virtual education at 26, not 6. Schooling up to that point established my ability to interact socially, face-to-face. I learned in a room of both friends and enemies. I developed both friends and enemies. We learned from one another both in the classroom and in the playground. I may not have liked the interaction 100% of the time, but I don't regret any of it.

The Study

Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel recently evaluated primary and secondary online learning from a more factual view, looking at not only the social component, but also the financial argument. After reviewing research showing the detrimental affects of early-age online education, Miron and Urschel (2012) constructed their own study, using data available from the 48 full-time online schools operated by K12, an education management organization.

As clarification, I use "primary and secondary online education" to diferentiate between online programs in general and K12, the proprietary organization that offers one online primary and secondary online education program. Miron and Urschel (2012) looked at student demographics, academic achievement, and finances of K12.

Demographics:  The typical K12 student is white, is of a slightly higher economic status than other online students, is a native English speaker, and is a middle school student. K12 does offer schooling from kindergarten through 12th grade (as its name indicates), but the enrollment for elementary and high school is significantly lower than enrollment for middle school.

Finances:  More money is allocated to instruction and administration of the educational programs than to saff salaries. Another significant financial statistic is K12 spends very little money on special education; however, one consideration they might have is that special education students are more likely than non-special education students to struggle with an online educational environment.

Academic Achievement: K12 performance data is not surprising. Using Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards, only 27.7% of K12 schools met or exceeded. Other online primary and secondary schools showed the same results; however, traditional primary and secondary schools meet or exceed at 52%. While lack of performance of K12 programs is significant, Miron and Urschel (2012) explain that less than 95% of the students in each grade took the assessments used to evaluate AYP. State departments of education measure academic achievement on satisfactory academic progress. Only 7 of K12 schools met or exceeded that standard in their respective states. Despite low enrollment in K12's high school programs, of those who did enroll, only 49.1% graduated on time.

Poor Academic Performance Rationale: While I believe lack of social interaction contributes to poor academic performance, Miron and Urschel (2012) cite other reasons:
  • Even though the majority of K12 students are native English speakers and represent an average economic status, the authors argue that students who choose to enroll in online elementary and secondary students are similar to migrant students meaning they move a lot and rely on online education to maintain structure and sameness in schooling.
  • Even though online elementary and secondary education programs do not have the financial need that traditional schools have (extracurricular programs, building maintenance, etc.), online school programs still have insufficient revenue to ensure a quality academic program. I found this an interesting argument as many online programs are proprietary and rely on business investments as well as state money to maintain their programs. Traditional primary and secondary schools don't have that luxury; rather, public primary and secondary schools don't have that luxury.
  • Although one argument for online primary and secondary education is the personal attention offered by teachers, the student to teacher ratio far exceeds the ratio for traditional schools (61.4 students per teacher compared to 16.9 students per teacher).
  • Finally, although online primary and secondary schools use "individualized instruction" as a marketing tactic, these programs are unable to support every character and sensory learning characteristic of students. Learning strategist, Shelly Loewen explains, "We (people) learn similarly to the way we play and our learning process is a dynamic combination of our character (cognitive & affective) and sensory (psychomotor) learning style values".

My Analysis

I found this study to be an objective evaluation of online primary and secondary education because of its specific population. Excluding the programs offered through the school district or the partial programs some parents might use for homeschooling eliminates the subjectivity that school districts and parents might monitor. Of course, the negatives of this study are they only evaluate one proprietary online program and one of their research questions is subjective: "What are the reasons for K12’s very low proportion of schools meeting Adequate Yearly Progress?" After reading this study, I have to stand by my argument that primary and secondary students need the social interaction afforded by traditional schools and limited by online schools. I appreciate that the authors offer other rationale, but I don't believe any, except for the final one, explain poor academic performance. The correlation between academic performance and social interaction is a controversial debate and deserves further research (Neziek, Wheeler, & Reis, 1990, Ford, Miura, & Masters, 1984, Kang, 2006, Galbo, 1989, Steedly, Schwartz, Levin, & Luke, 2008, and Lugo, 2009). I want to find a meta-analysis of social interaction and academic performance to further my understanding of the connection and either reinforce or change my opinion.

Further reading based on Miron and Urschel's study:

Anderson, A. H., Augenblick, J., DeCescre, D., & Conrad, N. (2006, October 2). Costs and Funding of Virtual Schools. Denver, CO: Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates, Inc.

Barbour, M. K. (in press). Virtual schools are more cost-effective compared to traditional, brick-and-mortar schools? In K. P. Brady (Ed.), Technology in Schools: Debating Issues in American Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Barth, P., Hull, J., & St. Andrie, R. (2012). Searching for the reality of virtual schools. Alexandria, VA. Center for Public Education, National School Boards Association

CREDO. (2011). Charter school performance in Pennsylvania. Palo Alto, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Stanford University

Finn, C.E. & Fairchild, D.R. (2012). Education reform for the digital era. Washington DC: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Glass, G. V & Welner, K. G. (2011). Online K-12 Schooling in the U.S.: Uncertain Private Ventures in Need of Public Regulation. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center

Hubbard, B. & Mitchell, N. (2011). Online K-12 schools failing students but keeping tax dollars. I-News Network

Huerta, L. A., González, M. F., & d’Entremont, C. (2006). Cyber and home school charter schools: Adopting policy to new forms of public schooling. Peabody Journal of Education, 81(1), 103-139

Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor. (2011). Evaluation report: K-12 Online Learning.

Colorado Legislative Audit Committee. (2006). Online education: Department of Education Performance audit

Rice, J.K. (2012). Review of “The Costs of Online Learning.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center

Stuiber, P., Hiorns, K. S., Kleidon, La Tarte, A., and Martin, J. (2010). An evaluation: Virtual charter schools. Wisconsin Legislative Bureau 

Thedy, E. G. (2010). An analysis of the legal, statutory, and governance issues of virtual charter schools. Doctoral dissertation. Orlando: University of Central Florida

Zimmer, R., Buddin, R, Chau, D., Gill, B., Guarino, C., Hamilton, L., Krop, C., McCaffrey, D., Sandler, M., & Brewer, D. (2003). Charter school operation and performance: Evidence from California. Santa Monica, CA: RAND

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