Advocates for virtual education say that it has the power to transform an archaic K-12 system of schooling. Instead of blackboards, schoolhouses, and a six-hour school day, interactive technology will personalize learning to meet each student's needs, ensure all students have access to quality teaching, extend learning opportunities to all hours of the day and all days of the week, and innovate and improve over time. Indeed, virtual education has the potential not only to help solve many of the most pressing issues in K-12 education, but to do so in a cost-effective manner. More than 1 million public-education students now take online courses, and as more districts and states initiate and expand online offerings, the numbers continue to grow. But to date, there's little research or publicly available data on the outcomes from K-12 online learning. And even when data are publicly available, as is the case with virtual charter schools, analysts and education officials have paid scant attention to--and have few tools for analyzing--performance. Until policymakers, educators, and advocates pay as much attention to quality as they do to expansion, virtual education will not be ready for a lead role in education reform.
Virtual education is in a period of rapid growth, as school districts, for-profit providers, and nonprofit start-ups all move into the online learning world. (See sidebars for just a few examples.) But without rigorous oversight, a thousand flowers blooming will also yield a lot of weeds. Real accountability, including the means to identify and end ineffective practices and programs, must be constantly balanced with the time required to refine new, immature technologies and approaches to learning. Both virtual education advocates and education policymakers should learn from nearly two decades of experience with charter schooling, another reform movement predicated on innovation and change within public education. After nearly 20 years of practice, the charter school movement provides important lessons on how to ensure that improved student outcomes remain the top priority.
Focus on Outcomes
At present, virtual education lacks a firm understanding of what high performance looks like. The situation is not unlike that faced by the charter school movement just a few years ago. In 2005, after a decade of rapid growth in the charter school sector, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) was formed to increase the availability of high-quality charter schools. NAPCS soon published "Renewing the Compact," a statement by its Task Force on Charter School Quality and Accountability. "Renewing the Compact" came on the heels of an August 17, 2004, lead story in the New York Times, which highlighted findings from a simplistic, and controversial, study of charter school achievement sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, "Charter School Achievement on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)." According to the Times, in "virtually every instance, the charter students did worse than their counterparts in regular public schools." The NAPCS task force did not mince words about the need for a sharper focus on quality within the charter school movement. The report challenged the charter community to "fully 'own' the issue of how well its schools perform" and also challenged charter advocates "to embrace rigorous measures of quality and accountability for our own schools' success."
But the wide range of education options within charter schooling makes "owning" quality difficult, and the variety is even greater for virtual education. Virtual public education can be delivered by all types of providers, including charter schools, for-profit companies, universities, state entities, and school districts. Types of online schools and programs range from state-run programs like Florida Virtual School, where each year 100,000 students take one or two courses online as a supplement to traditional schools, to "blended" models, which allow schools to combine online and classroom-based instruction. …