The right policies for virtual schools

By:

Jun 30, 2016

All too often, debates about virtual schools tend to extremes. Critics point to low achievement scores and high turnover rates, decry the prevalence of for-profit operators, attack the online instructional model, and then call for virtual schools to be wiped from the public education system. Meanwhile, virtual school proponents highlight the compelling, personal stories of gifted students, Olympic athletes, medically homebound students, and students with social and emotional challenges whose unique circumstances and individual needs are often marginalized in traditional schools. It is refreshing to see a perspective that neither glorifies nor condemns virtual schools, but instead looks objectively on what’s working, what’s not working, and what needs to improve. In that tone, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), and The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50Can) released a concise yet thorough report earlier this month that analyzes the current state of virtual schools and provides a clear set of recommendations for driving their improvement.

The report is especially noteworthy for its analysis of how the incentives created by policy have shaped the priorities and business models of the virtual school ecosystem. For example, the report notes that when state policies allow individual districts to authorize virtual charter schools that can enroll thousands of students from across the state, the financial per-student windfalls those districts receive for authorizing can “become a driving factor in keeping the virtual schools open despite poor performance.” Additionally, because most states fund schools based on their enrollment numbers and not student performance, this creates “inevitable incentives for for-profit operators to recruit for peak enrollment” even when their programs are not well suited to some of the students they recruit.

The report then offers a number of forward-thinking recommendations for how to get policies and incentives right to improve the quality of virtual schools. Below are a few highlights.

  • “[R]equire authorizers and schools to jointly determine … goals regarding student enrollment, attendance, engagement, achievement, truancy, attrition, finances, and operations” and then “make renewal and closure decisions based upon schools’ achievement of the goals in their contracts.”
  • “Tie growth in full-time virtual charter schools enrollments to fulfillment of interim performance goals”
  • “[F]und full-time virtual charter school students via a performance-based funding system … based on the progress schools make toward interim and yearly goals.”

Rather than trying to prescribe the resources and processes for how virtual schools should operate, these recommendations describe how policy can create the right incentives to improve quality in the virtual school ecosystem.

A few recommendations in the report deserve some refinement. For example, the report recommends capping virtual school enrollments so that virtual schools serve just hundreds, not thousands of students. This recommendation seems unnecessary given the report’s other recommendation to limit enrollment growth based on school performance. Enrollment caps artificially limit the potential impact of high-quality virtual school programs. Additionally, states and authorizers implementing the recommendation to identify performance goals for virtual schools need to take care to ensure that goals focus on outcomes and not inputs. Setting input goals, such as requiring students to log a specified number of hours working on their courses or requiring teachers and students to use certain modes of communication, limit innovation and are unnecessary when good outcome-focused goals are in place.

As I’ve noted before, organizations evolve to address the problems we hire them to solve, and in public education, the problems to be solved are defined by policy. Low-quality virtual schools exist today because current policies hire them to merely enroll students. Instead, we need policies that authorize, fund, and scale virtual schools based on how well they improve student outcomes. The recommendations in this report provide clear directions for how states can create the right policies for the virtual school ecosystem.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.