Full-time virtual learning has never been the belle of the education-reform ball. Most parents prefer that at least some learning take place in a physical classroom with other students; after all, more than 90 percent of students remain enrolled in brick-and-mortar schools. Policymakers and academics share, and perhaps even feed, skepticism about full-time virtual learning: academic studies and editorials have framed virtual learning as ineffective and harmful. A 2015 Washington Post headline quoting a project director of an oft-cited evaluation of virtual charter schools captures the attitude: “It is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.” Covid-related school closures and negative experiences with compulsory remote online learning have fueled fresh doubts about the merits of full-time virtual education.
Yet enrollment in full-time virtual schools keeps showing steady, if modest, growth, and families educating their children this way feel passionately that such schools are doing right by their kids. The divergence of elite consensus with parental behavior raises two questions: Could the experts be mistaken? And what if what doesn’t work for most kids proves effective, even essential, for others?
The nation’s first full-time virtual school launched in Florida in 1997. As of 2018–19, such schools across the 32 states that offered tuition-free online education enrolled about 375,000 students. Some observers initially predicted that virtual learning would spur an education revolution. Students could learn at any time and in any place and could choose from a diverse offering of courses taught by high-quality teachers. This vision proved elusive. Virtual schools have remained a niche market. Opinion soured in 2015 when Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) published a national evaluation of virtual charter schools (which enroll most full-time virtual students) that concluded that they have an “overwhelming negative impact on student growth.”
If virtual schools are so lousy, are parents who enroll their children in them making a big mistake? It’s hard to believe that that’s the case across the board, given that the parents have a front-row seat in the online classroom. Critics of virtual schools and other choice offerings often seek empirical answers to what parents see as essentially normative questions—for example, “Is this a good school for my child?” Demand for virtual schools is often driven by concern about transparency and the transmission of values, as well as bullying and lack of safety in brick-and-mortar schools. For some students, including those struggling with drug addiction, unique health challenges, or homelessness, these schools represent their lone chance at obtaining a high school diploma.
Labeling the schools ineffective because of test-score performance, as critics often do, misunderstands why many families use them. Test-score gains in schools of choice poorly predict the type of later-in-life outcomes that policymakers and taxpayers should care about—teenage pregnancy and adult earnings, for example—whereas accommodation of parental preference strongly predicts children’s later-in-life success. Test scores can serve as a useful diagnostic indicator of student literacy and numeracy, but they tell us less than parent sentiment about how well a school is performing. In other words, we have good cause to believe that parents do, in fact, know more than the experts about what’s best for their kids.
CREDO is also wrong on its own terms. To evaluate charter schools, it uses a “virtual control method” that matches students in charters with students in traditional public schools based on commonly observed characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches, and achievement history. CREDO attributes aggregate differences in testing outcomes between students and their “virtual twins” to the effect of the school that each child attends. But the decision to enroll in a virtual school is not random, and differences across student populations cannot be fully documented or controlled for. That’s precisely why randomized control trials, which eliminate differences across groups that would otherwise occur through self-selection, are considered the gold standard for research.
With virtual schools, the omitted variable is the high incidence of students enrolling because of bullying and other social or emotional disturbances. According to a recent EdChoice report, 48 percent of parents of students in the largest virtual charter network report that bullying was a problem at a previous school that their child attended (the sample was restricted to parents of students who had switched schools). Meantime, across the general parental population, 27 percent of parents with a child who switched schools said that bullying was a problem at the previous school. Unsurprisingly, these types of issues hurt student performance down the road.
CREDO’s work has other measurement issues. The EdChoice report reveals that students in virtual schools are twice as likely as other students to live in single-parent households or households with incomes of less than $20,000 per year, circumstances not properly controlled for in CREDO’s methodology. Further, virtual students must test in unfamiliar testing locations, often under the stress of long drives and narrow testing windows. These conditions appear to explain a significant portion of the learning gap between students in virtual schools and their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
For most families, full-time virtual learning is not a popular option, especially after largely negative experiences during Covid school closures. Thanks to the type of students they disproportionately serve, virtual schools—including those soon to be established in New York City—are likely to feature low levels of observed achievement and high rates of mobility. They probably won’t offer many media-friendly stories of remarkable academic triumph, as famously chronicled for “no-excuse” charters in the film Waiting for Superman. Yet for a select number of families, virtual schools represent a vital option. Lawmakers should disregard doomsaying experts and listen to these parents.
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