The virtual schools market in North America is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 13% between 2017 and 2021. In 2017-2018, there were 501 full-time virtual schools in the US enrolling 297,712 students and 300 blended schools enrolling 132,960. Enrollment in virtual and blended schools is steadily increasing, with more than 2,000 students enrolled between the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years, and enrollment in blended learning schools increasing by more than 16,000 during the same time period.
Online virtual schools offer increased flexibility to meet a student’s individual learning needs, provide learners with hands-on experience with technology, eliminate distractions, and improve learning efficiency and provide fresh alternative learning options to students who aren’t thriving or able to align to the structure of the regular school system (due to factors such as illness, bullying, the transience of military life, or competitive athletics). The associated lower costs that come with a virtual school model (fewer instructional personnel and minimal brick-and-mortar infrastructure) also make virtual schools financially appealing to policymakers and for-profit providers.
The virtual schools market, however, is not without its challenges. According to a report by the National Education Policy Center, virtual schools are generally still underperforming. Far more district-operated schools have achieved acceptable state school performance ratings (56.7%) than have charter-operated schools (40.8%). In addition, independent schools perform better (59.3% acceptable ratings) than schools operated by nonprofit EMOs (50%) and schools operated by for-profit EMOs.
The National Education Policy Center makes the following recommendations:
- Slow growth and enrollments of virtual and blended schools until underlying performance issues can be identified and addressed.
- Reduce student to teacher ratios.
- Enforce sanctions for poorly performing schools.
- Sponsor research on virtual and blended learning programs and innovate within traditional schools and districts.
In short, while there is growing momentum behind the virtual school movement, the uncertainty around performance continues to offset the benefits realized by learners, policymakers, and providers. Rather than viewing these findings in a negative light, we suggest treating this data as the canary in the coal mine. It offers those involved in the virtual school system the opportunity to themselves learn, grow, and mature their curriculum, instruction methods, and processes to provide an exemplary educational experience for all.