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Shawn Vestal: Idaho results show that in many cases, virtual education doesn’t deliver

Idaho education officials have been wondering why the state’s graduation rate was so poor, dropping in recent years to one of the nation’s lowest.

Now it appears part of the problem is one of the state’s supposed education “solutions” – its virtual schooling, which it has outsourced to a corporation with a controversial record of elevating profits over teaching.

Officials in the Gem State were surprised and appalled by new federal statistics showing four-year graduation rates for virtual students in the state at 20 percent. There are definite caveats – online students are typically more transient and don’t stick with one four-year program through high school. Also, many online students are already struggling academically when they enroll. As with low graduation rates for alternative schools, there is more to the picture than the simple number.

Still: 20 percent.

Meanwhile, students in regular old schools – those using the sometimes-derided “19th century technologies” of buildings, classes and teachers – graduated at rates better than the national average. Eighty-eight percent of students in regular schools graduated on time, and 91 percent of students in brick-and-mortar charter schools did so. That compares to 82 percent nationwide.

But when you add in virtual schools and alternative schools, the state’s graduation rate drops to 77 percent, the figure that has caused concern over the past year in Idaho.

These cybernumbers should surprise no one. Virtual learning can be a good fit for some students – particularly highly motivated ones with close parental oversight – but education researchers have been flagging problems with it for years. Online education now comprises a wide range of offerings, from programs that complement regular classroom work to full-time online schools like the Idaho Virtual Academy. The IVA is an online charter school with 2,237 students.

It is run by K12, a for-profit corporation that operates charter schools in 27 states, and had revenues of more than $948 million in fiscal 2015. That includes a net income of $11 million, down from about $20 million the previous year.

K12 has received stingingly harsh assessments from independent researchers. It has also been targeted with criticism that it focuses on profits and growth, rather than investing in education. Former teachers have said they were responsible for hundreds of students at a time, and have accused company schools of keeping bogus records to hide high turnover. K12 acknowledged a couple of years ago that it had outsourced the evaluation of student essays – including some from Idaho – to India.

Here’s the conclusion from four years ago of researchers who investigated the performance of students in K12 cyberschools, including those in Idaho, for the National Education Policy Center: “Our findings are clear. Children who enroll in a K12 Inc. cyber school, who receive full-time instruction in front of a computer instead of in a classroom with a live teacher and other students, are more likely to fall behind in reading and math. These children are also more likely to move between schools or leave school altogether – and the cyber school is less likely to meet federal education standards.”

The policy center, which is part of the University of Colorado, has evaluated the state of virtual learning annually since then. Last March, it summarized its latest report this way: “Despite considerable enthusiasm for virtual education in some quarters, there is little credible research to support virtual schools’ practices or to justify ongoing calls for ever greater expansion.”

The Idaho Virtual Academy’s head of school, Kelly Edginton, issued a written statement taking issue with the statistics. Newer federal statistics measure graduation rates based on four-year completion – measuring how many freshmen make it all the way to graduation. This measure is a poor fit for virtual schools, which naturally see a lot of turnover and transfers, and which enroll a lot of students who are already in academic trouble, Edginton said.

She noted that students who transfer away from IVA into another school are counted as “non-graduates,” and said among all students who enrolled in 2010-11 and stayed enrolled for four years, 90 percent graduated on time. It was not clear how many students that was, but I’d guess neither 20 percent nor 90 percent is definitive.

Edginton is doubtlessly correct that the four-year graduation rate is a poor fit for a virtual academy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to be concerned. The political mythology of virtual education, like that of vouchers and school choice, rests on the assumptions that sticking it to teachers’ unions and turning education over to private companies will improve education. But broadly speaking, for-profit education and the promises that sold it – from K12 to all the online corporate colleges – have proven to be a bust: corner-cutting, profit-maximizing, high-pressure sales, wasted tax money and poorly educated students.

Idaho officials say the new statistics are an opportunity for improvement. The president of the Idaho Board of Education, Don Soltman, told lawmakers, “This analysis provides the board direction to investigate strategies to help these low-graduating populations improve.”

Perhaps one strategy is built right into the numbers: More old-fashioned class, fewer home-alone computers.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.