Last month, CREDO, Mathematica, and CRPE released a study on online charter schools. Read full report here. Using a “virtual twin” matching approach, comparisons were made between brick and mortar and virtual students’ academic achievement. Because the virtual twin underperformed the brick and mortar student, it was assumed that virtual education students are learning far below their brick and mortar peers. However, the study didn’t compare apples to apples.
The students in the matching process were matched by race/ethnicity, gender, English proficiency, lunch status, special education status and grade level. The philosophy that academic performance is comparable for students with identical demographics is faulty. If I made the assumption that every 6th grade, general education, white male, on free and reduced lunch that entered my classroom learned the same way, received my lesson the same way, and performed the same way, I would do my students a huge disservice. Each of my students is an individual with unique needs, and their own reasons for choosing virtual education. In addition, two critical factors of many that were not considered in this comparison were the reasons why the students left their school and the students’ performance over time. Looking at these important factors, one can see that the virtual twin is hardly a twin at all.
All of my families have a story, a reason they chose virtual education. John* is a great learner, but easily distracted. Jane* is an Olympic hopeful and trains 40+ hours a week. Kyle* has a 45 minute bus ride to and from school every day. What all of my families have in common is that they left their previous school environment for the same reason: “it did not work for them.”
Quite often, by the time a student has left his school and enrolled in our virtual school, he is already significantly behind his peers. Unfortunately, this study only reports score averages for on grade level state testing. What we do not see in this report is the growth students make on a consistent basis. The traditional classroom’s large class sizes, various distractions, and lack of individualization are just a few of the factors that have kept students from reaching their full potential. These same factors are things the virtual setting addresses well. With our smaller ratio, students enjoy freedom, flexibility and support to not only move at their own pace, but to receive the individualized attention needed to make remarkable gains.
Before coming to our school last year, Kayla* was in a traditional reading classroom of 35 students. Kayla’s teacher realized that her comprehension level was well below her peers. With a large class and limited time, the teacher was unable to give Kayla the individualized attention
she needed to make significant improvements in her reading skills. By the end of the year Kayla was two grade levels behind in reading. The next year Kayla enrolled in the Virginia Virtual Academy. In this online setting, Kayla was able to dedicate more time to reading comprehension in addition to attending weekly, individualized remedial sessions with me. By the end of the year Kayla had made tremendous growth and was on grade level for reading. These gains would not have been possible for Kayla with the limitations of her previous brick and mortar school setting. For me, watching students that were not successful in the classroom thrive in the virtual setting are the most inspirational and rewarding moments in my teaching career.
For some of my students, measurable growth takes longer than a single year to achieve. This study does not consider student performance over time. Studies have shown that the longer a student stays with K12 the better they perform. In a report published by K12, students enrolled three or more years in grades 3-8 achieved higher proficiency in math (14 percentage points) and reading (19 percentage points) compared to students enrolled less than one year.
As a teacher of virtual students, I feel that the comparison of brick and mortar students and virtual students was mismatched and the conclusions made on virtual education therefore misleading. Virtual education is not for all students, but for many students it is the best choice. We cannot easily compare students in our virtual school to students in a brick and mortar setting. They are characteristically and fundamentally different. K12’s number one belief is individualized learning through mass customization instead of mass production of education. My students are not virtual twins; they are individuals that learn virtually anywhere, in their own way.
Katie Poindexter is a teacher at Virginia Virtual Academy (VAVA) and a K12 Teacher Ambassador.
*student names have been changed to protect their privacy