Online public schools, where students as young as kindergarteners log on from home to take classes, don’t make the grade, according to a study released Friday.
Less than a third of the “virtual” schools managed by for- profit companies made adequate progress toward meeting state standards last year, compared with about half of all public schools, according to the report from the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The findings demonstrate that online public schools, which educate more than 200,000 students nationwide, don’t have the results to justify their growth, said Gary Miron, lead author of the study and a professor at Western Michigan University. K12 Inc., part-owned by billionaire Michael Milken, and Pearson’s Connections Academy are the biggest operators of Internet- based charter schools — privately run public schools.
“I don’t think students are being well-served,” Miron said. “I don’t think taxpayers are being well- served.”
The study’s results may reflect the kinds of students flocking to online public schools — such as those who have fallen behind in high school — more than the quality of instruction, said Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a nonprofit advocacy and research group in Vienna, Va.
“The kids enrolling in online schools needed something other than the traditional system,” Patrick said. “It can be a great option.”
The study looked at both for-profit and nonprofit companies that specialize in running charter schools. Researchers determined how many of the schools overseen by these companies were making “ adequate yearly progress” toward passing state standardized reading and math tests under the federal No Child Left Behind Law. The authors called that yardstick a “crude indicator” of whether the schools met state standards.
Twenty-seven percent of virtual charter schools run by for- profit companies showed satisfactory progress, down from 30 percent the year before, the study found. For-profit companies managed almost all of the Internet schools in the study.
The National Education Policy Center received funding for the study from the American Federation of Teachers, which says on its website that charter schools should be not-for-profit and open to teachers unions. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, also provided funding.
Of the schools managed by Herndon, Va.-based K12, 33 percent made adequate yearly progress on state tests, according to the study, which covered the 2010-2011 school year. That marked an improvement from 25 percent a year earlier.
Companies controlled by Milken — the former junk-bond financier who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990, and his brother, Lowell — own 19 percent of K12, according to a December Securities and Exchange Commission filing. K12 is the largest U.S. operator of online public schools, with more than 90,000 students, according to a November earnings release.
K12 was the subject of a June article in Bloomberg Businessweek, which detailed the company’s subpar state test results, student turnover and complaints from state and local officials about its costs to taxpayers.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the adequate yearly progress measure flawed because it can label high- performing schools as failing, Jeff Kwitowski, a K12 spokesman, said in a phone interview.
Schools fall short of the standard if one subgroup, such as students with disabilities, doesn’t pass, Kwitowski said. As many as half of K12 students are new each year and, arriving behind grade level, are tested after only a few months of the company’s instruction, he said. Results improve each year they stay with the program, he said.
Twenty-seven percent of schools run by Baltimore-based Connections Academy, the second-largest online school chain with more than 30,000 students, showed adequate yearly progress, according to the study. That was down from 70 percent the year before.
Pearson, the London-based publishing and education company that owns the Financial Times, agreed to buy Connections Education in September for $400 million.
Connections’ average enrollment has more than doubled since the 2008-2009 school year, attracting more students who are struggling academically, said Barbara Dreyer, its chief executive officer. As at K12, results improved over time, she said.
All public schools will be turning to the Internet for at least part of their instruction, and educators need to determine what approaches are effective for different kinds of students, Dreyer said in a telephone interview.
“The idea that online works for everyone or that online works for no nobody isn’t right,” Dreyer said. “The answer is in the middle.”