A new study from education think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, conducted by NYU Steinhardt’s June Ahn, dives into a promising—and contentious—issue in education today: virtual schools. What types of students choose them? Which courses do students take? And do virtual schools improve student outcomes?
With over thirty-five thousand students enrolled in its online charter schools (“e-schools”), Ohio has one of the country’s largest populations of full-time virtual students. The sector is rapidly growing, with a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years.
Ahn, who joins NYU Steinhardt this fall as an associate professor of learning sciences and educational technology, explored these questions through working with the Ohio Department of Education to access four years of student-level data for all 1.7 million K–12 students in the state.
Analyzing enrollment trends, patterns, and student achievement of student populations who opted for Ohio’s e-schools, the study finds:
- E-school students are mostly similar in race and ethnicity to students in brick-and-mortar district schools. But e-school students are lower-achieving (and more likely to have repeated the prior grade), more likely to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and less likely to participate in gifted education.
- Students taking online math courses are more likely to enroll in basic classes relative to students taking face-to-face courses. Almost no students take advanced math courses (like AP Statistics, Calculus, or Algebra II) online, especially compared to students who take face-to-face classes.
- Across all grades and subjects, students who attend e-schools perform worse on state tests than otherwise-similar students who attend brick-and-mortar district schools, even accounting for prior achievement. In contrast, students in grades 4–8 who attend brick-and-mortar charter schools perform slightly better than their district school counterparts in both reading and math.
The study corroborates earlier findings from the 2015 CREDO Online Charter School Study, which also found the disappointing results from Ohio’s online schools.
“Online education is reconfiguring the delivery of schooling and the activities that students experience on a daily basis. However, our analyses suggest that online students are not achieving at the same level as their peers in brick-and-mortar schools,” said Ahn.
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