Response to the NEPC Report

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) recently released Virtual Schools in the U.S. 2019, the latest of NEPC’s series of annual reports looking at online and blended schools. The report runs to 125 pages and is divided into three sections, looking at 1) enrollment and student characteristics, 2) a review of relevant research, and 3) policy issues. This year’s report appears to have been picked up by more media outlets than usual, receiving coverage from Education Week and the Washington Post, among others.

Given the length of the report, it’s impossible to cover all of it in a blog post of reasonable length. However, some key ideas in response include:

  • The enrollment data for online schools are roughly similar to the numbers that we reported in the 2019 DLC/Keeping Pace Snapshot. The summary statistics on demographics of students in online schools are valuable and useful.

  • The growth trends that are being reported are not supported by our data. After past years’ NEPC reports warning of how quickly online schools’ enrollment were growing, this year’s report shows year over year growth of 0.5%. Snapshot 2019 numbers and prior years’ Keeping Pace reports have generally shown slow but steady growth in the range of 5% year over year—neither the “explosion” that was reported in past years, nor the major slowdown this year.

  • It’s notable that when the NEPC researchers said their data showed very fast growth, their policy prescription was that online schools should be restricted. Now that they say their numbers show enrollments levelling off, their top-line policy recommendation is…exactly the same. Although the authors might argue that their recommendation was based on performance concerns, past reports discussed the rapid growth as a reason to restrict the spread of online schools. The use of completely different data to support the exact same conclusion raises the question of whether the authors are exhibiting a policy bias.

  • The report seems to be confused about the distinction between what they call virtual district schools versus virtual charter schools. In our view a very important distinction exists between the district online schools that only serve students in the district’s geographic boundary, versus district online schools that serve students across a broad region or statewide. But this is not the distinction that NEPC draws. Some states allow district-authorized, non-charter schools to serve students across a state, so the distinction as made by NEPC is not very useful.

  • The discussion of school performance and student outcomes goes over well-trodden paths without breaking significant new ground. In basic terms, the ongoing debate is:

    • Online school critics such as the NEPC researchers point to state accountability frameworks, graduation rates, and research studies that suggest that online students’ performance is far worse than state averages.

    • Online schools and their advocates respond that virtual schools serve a tiny percentage of students that are not representative of state averages, and online school students have high rates of mobility that correlate with diminished academic performance and are not accounted for in the frameworks and studies.

  • The NEPC researchers rely heavily on academic journals to make statements such as, “There is little research to describe the virtual or blended student experience, which has resulted in a lack of understanding of the actual instructional model, the nature of the curriculum, and the type and amount of support employed by these schools.” Perhaps it is true that there is little information in academic journals describing the experience of online and blended students. But to suggest that such information is not available at all is misleading at best. In my experience, online and blended schools welcome and support interviews, school visits, and other efforts to understand and describe how the schools operate. Many case studies and profiles exist of online and blended schools, as well.

  • This distinction between the accounts of the academic researchers, and the information available from non-academic sources, may explain why state policymakers continue to support their online schools. The NEPC reports have been calling for slowing the growth of online schools for many years, or closing them down entirely, yet no states have taken significant measures to do so. This suggests that schools are serving a purpose for populations not identified in the NEPC report. However, such reports that do not look at the full picture create challenges for educators who have to explain and defend their schools instead of remaining focused on educating and supporting students.

None of the points above mean to suggest that the online school sector should not or cannot improve. The school leaders I know defend graduation rates that are lower than state averages by pointing to the level of credit deficiency that afflicts so many students when they first enroll. Those same school leaders celebrate every student who eventually graduates (including many who take five or six years to do so), while lamenting that they can’t do more for the students who do not graduate.

Those of us at Evergreen and some members of the Digital Learning Collaborative have known the NEPC reports, and some of the researchers, for many years. We generally find that the researchers are more knowledgeable and nuanced in their statements in public settings with online school advocates than comes through in these reports, particularly in the summaries and policy recommendations. The media coverage, for example the Washington Post article, demonstrates even less understanding of the details of the field. These reporters and researchers might well spend some time discussing why hundreds of thousands of students and parents are choosing both online and blended learning schools as their educational options. Perhaps if they knew more of those students, they would join the efforts to help improve online schools rather than call for their closing.

ViewsJohn Watson