Cyber schools offer all or most of their course work online, typically for the convenience of students who have children of their own, jobs, health problems, or other issues that prevent them from attending a traditional public school. As of last year, there were about 200,000 students enrolled full-time in more than 200 K-12 virtual schools, most of them public charter schools.
Glass and Welner admit that major meta-analyses by four different research teams, summarizing 27 experimental and quasi-experimental studies, found that student learning in online courses was similar to or slightly better than in traditional classes, usually at comparable or somewhat lower costs. Yet they spend a mere page summarizing these findings and do not present any of their own - as if learning just doesn't matter.
The authors go on to spend eight pages expressing concern that private businesses run some cyber schools, and that cyber schooling might not be for everybody. These concerns seem divorced from the real world of education. For example, the authors are concerned that cyber schooling might not work for all kids, but apparently unconcerned that traditional public schools are failing the 25 percent of students who drop out, flunk out, or are pushed out - not to mention others who stay in school but face bullying or other difficulties.
We recently surveyed parents and students at Achievement House Cyber Charter School, a growing virtual school in Pennsylvania. (In the interest of full disclosure, one of us serves on the school's unpaid board.) A wide range of students attend the school, but many of them failed or endured bullying in traditional public schools. A fourth of the school's students (more than twice the state average) have diagnosed special education needs. And half enroll in the school reading below grade level.
However, thanks to computer tutoring, human hand-holding, and constant measurement of results, Achievement House students scored very well last year on the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Value Added Assessment System measures. And the school's students are not only making progress; they also like the school. Students and parents gave Achievement House a mean grade of A-minus, compared with an average of C-minus for their previous schools.
The disparity was even greater among students with special needs, many of whom noted that online schooling suits their learning style. One student said, "I can work at my own pace. I do not have to deal with the weather or strict schedules and there is no bullying." Another special-education student appreciates "working ... at my own pace and getting to talk to my teachers when I have problems. ... No one can make fun of me if I can't spell something, and it's much quieter to do work." A general-education student commented that at Achievement House, "Everyone seems to care about your needs with everything you need help with, compared to my old school," where "they just didn't seem to really care."
Achievement House's parents and students appear to have found a school that works for them. They're less interested in the agendas of national organizations than in finding a place where students can learn at their own pace, be free from bullying, and have their individual needs taken care of. In the end, isn't that what education should be about?
Robert Maranto teaches in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, where Anna Jacob is a doctoral academy fellow and graduate assistant. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.