Searching for the reality of virtual schools

You’re probably reading this on a screen – whether a monitor, a phone, or a tablet – providing more evidence that digital content is ubiquitous. Likewise, its place in public education is not a matter of debate; it is inevitable. But school leaders and education policymakers do need to consider how to manage the influx of online learning opportunities in order to make sure students get their full benefit and not end up lost in cyberspace.

K-12 online learning is growing rapidly. Many players see opportunities in this burgeoning market and are pushing states and districts to expand their offerings of virtual courses and schools. They include the ed tech community; major education think tanks; school choice and home school advocates; and online learning providers, including several major software companies.

Yet there is little solid research on the impact of online courses or schools. In writing this paper, we found a few examples of online learning having a positive effect, but most of what we were able to uncover is not encouraging. At least not yet. In order to assure the public, parents and students that online learning produces the results we want, it’s imperative for school leaders and policymakers to educate themselves.

Main findings

  • Online courses and schools enroll a small fraction of the 52 million public school students, but they are rapidly gaining ground. In 2009-10, elementary and secondary students took approximately 1.8 million courses online. In addition, about 250,000 students were enrolled full-time in virtual schools in 2010-11, up from 200,000 the year before.
  • The development, management and staffing of online courses and schools is supported by both public and private providers. For-profit companies K-12, Inc., and Connections Academy together enrolled nearly half of all full-time online students in 2010-11.
  • Funding for online learning varies by state, and ranges from 70 to 100 percent of state and local per pupil rates. The impact on district funds also varies by state. In some states, districts are billed for each student enrolled online. In addition, accounting for the actual cost of virtual courses and schools is often lacking.
  • The jury is still out on the effect of online courses on K-12 student achievement. The U.S. Department of Education reviewed existing research and found a modest positive impact of online courses, but cautioned that the findings were based mostly on results for post-secondary students.
  • Emerging reports show a troubling overall picture of poor performance and low graduation rates for full-time online students. Two small-scale studies found positive effects for elementary students, suggesting that parental supervision could be an important factor.
  • There needs to be a clearer accountability path for online learning, especially in regard to monitoring student progress and performance as well as accounting for the cost of virtual schooling.



Online learning comes from many different sources. Some examples:

For-profit companies. For-profits produce everything from out-of-the-box courseware to a full, planned curriculum with teachers, tutors, proctored exams – literally, a “virtual school.” 

Non-profit companies. Some non-profit organizations offer online learning, often with different philanthropic aims in mind, such as helping at-risk students graduate. 

State departments of education. Some states offer their own courses. For example, Florida Virtual School offers courses to both Florida students (who do not have to pay) and others outside the state (who do pay tuition). 

Individual districts. Individual districts may buy online software and create their own blended-learning approaches; they may also develop online coursework of their own.


Combined with the variation in providers is a variation of formats. The two most common formats are referred to as “fully online” and as “blended learning.” “Fully online” can mean that every part of the school academic experience is provided online; alternatively, “fully online” can mean that students can take single courses online, but all interaction is done through the computer. “Blended learning” is a term used to indicate a mixture of in-person and online instruction. Most of these courses take place in an actual brick-and-mortar building and are supervised by either a proctor or a teacher.


Online learning is rapidly growing at all levels, but particularly among high school students:


  • 55 percent of public school districts have some students enrolled in distance education courses; of these, the vast majority (96 percent) are high school students (Watson et al., 2011).
  • Total K-12 course enrollments were approximately 1.8 million in 2009-10; special needs students and students from low-income families were the least likely to participate in virtual courses (Watson et al., 2011).
  • Ohio reports the highest number of full-time online enrollments in 2010-11 at 31,142, followed by Pennsylvania (28,578) and Colorado (15,214) (Watson et al., 2011).



States and districts have different policies regarding students in online learning courses. The degree to which districts monitor the performance of online students varies considerably. In many cases it is much less than required for students taking classes in traditional schools and should cause some alarm. For instance, while 98 percent of districts monitored students’ final grades in online education courses, only about half tracked students’ log in activity or time spent online.

Student outcomes

The one aspect of online learning that stands out is how little is known about its effect on student outcomes, especially at the K-12 level. Several attempts to document student performance have been thwarted by missing and incomplete data, lax monitoring rules, and a vague picture of students dropping in and out of the online environment and subsequently the accountability system. A few studies document online students outperforming their non-digital peers, showing that online learning can be a vehicle for high performance under the right conditions. Most of the studies we found that examine test scores, graduation or completion rates, however, tell a story of students worse off than their classmates in brick-and-mortar schools. Reports of high school completion rates at or under 25 percent, lower test scores, and high dropout rates in some virtual schools raise serious concerns for school districts, students, and parents.  The contrast between two examples should illustrate the need for serious examination:


  • A Stanford University study looked at eight Pennsylvania virtual charter schools and found that every one of them performed significantly worse in reading and math than their traditional school counterparts in terms of student gains. The study covered the period 2007-2010.
  • An independent evaluation of Rocketship Education, a national “hybrid” or blended learning charter school network, showed sizable math gains among participating students at kindergarten and grade 1 compared to their peers. The average gains were equivalent to a 5.5 increase in percentile rankings over a 16-week period.



Online schools are funded in different ways in different states. In some, online schools are funded entirely by the state, while in others, funding comes directly out of school districts’ budgets. See the full paper for a detailed discussion/spa of Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio and Florida, four of the states involved most heavily in online learning.

In general, how much funding virtual schools receive does not necessarily correspond to how much it actually costs to operate them.  Clear data for the true costs is hard to come by.  And to make it even more difficult, determining how many students are enrolled in virtual schools can be a problem as well. For example, in Colorado funds are distributed to virtual schools based on their enrollments on October 1st. However, between 30 and 50 percent of those students do not remain in the virtual school throughout the year, meaning the virtual school keeps the money even though the student has returned to the traditional school.

The bottom line is that in many cases we do not know how much it actually costs to provide a virtual education, nor how many students the money is funding, nor exactly how the money will be spent.

Moving forward

Several things should be clear to school leaders and policymakers. First, they should ask for more information before expanding access to virtual programs, especially full-time online schools. The wide variety of purposes, providers and formats, combined with the lack of data on outcomes, accountability, and funding, means that we know little of what is going on overall in the field.  Second, some of the outcomes studies have shown troubling results. It is possible for students – especially struggling ones – to drop in and out of the online world, putting them ultimately farther behind.  Finally, follow the money.  Funding for online students should reflect the actual costs of providing the instruction. In addition, there need to be clear lines to exactly who is accountable for student progress so that parents, students and taxpayers know that dollars are well-spent and producing results.