In an effort to accommodate students with varying levels of advancement and in reaction to state budgetary cuts, at least 30 states in the US now let elementary and high school students take all their courses online.
According to Evergreen Education Group, a consulting firm that works with online schools, an estimated 250,000 students nationwide are enrolled in full-time virtual schools, a 40 percent increase in the last three years. And the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a trade group, says two million kids take at least one class online.
Advocates say online schooling can save states money, offer curricula customized to each student and give parents more choice in education.
“I don’t think learning has to happen at school, in a classroom with 30 other kids and a teacher… corralling all children into learning the same thing at the same pace,” Allison Brown, a Georgia mother of three, says. “We should rethink the environment we set up for education.”
But others point to data in some states showing students enrolled full-time in virtual schools score significantly lower on standardized tests, and make less academic progress from year to year, than their peers. Detractors also worry kids aren’t learning to interact with each other or how to participate in group discussions.
This reinvention of education also has teachers worried. “Schools teach people the skills of citizenship — how to get along with others, how to reason and deliberate, how to tolerate differences,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of educational history at New York University.
And while Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, says that his organization opposes full-time online schools, it does support integrating virtual lessons into classrooms. “Obviously, we all want to save money,” he says. “But to replace teachers with online learning is a mistake.”
Overall, virtual schooling “comes down to what you make of it,” says Rosie Lowndes, social-studies teacher at Georgia Cyber Academy. She also says that kids who work closely with parents or teachers do well, but computer learning alone isn’t sufficient.
“Letting a child educate himself, that’s not going to be a good educational experience,” she says.