Virtual Schools: Planning for Success
Barbour, Michael K., Quarterly Review of Distance Education
Virtual Schools: Planning for Success, by Zane L. Berge and Tom Clark (Eds.). New York: Teachers College Press, 2005, 246 pages, paperback: $28.95; cloth: $64.
Virtual schooling in the United States began in 1996 in two corners of the country with the creation of the Florida Virtual School and the Virtual High School. Five years later, Clark (2001) speculated that there were 40,000 to 50,000 students enrolled in virtual courses. Almost a decade from the first virtual schools, Setzer and Lewis (2005) estimated that there were 328,000 public school enrollments in online or video-based learning. This growth does not include charter school and homeschool students who are also enrolled in cyberand virtual schools.
Berge and Clark bring together many of the leading individuals in the virtual school movement in the United States to discuss some of the factors involved in the success of their initiatives by using their own personal examples as a series of best practices in matters of policy and planning. The book is divided in exactly this manner, with the first six chapters discussing issues such as equity and access or the technology involved in and marketing of virtual schools. These chapters are all written by individuals well-versed in virtual school initiatives such as the University of California College Preparatory Initiative or the Michigan Virtual High School. The second section of the book provides a series of case studies written by teachers and administrators from a variety of virtual schools, such as the district-based Cumberland County Schools Web Academy, the state-wide Florida Virtual School, the consortium model of the Virtual High School, and the cyber charter K12 inc.
Clark and Berge introduce this series by describing many of the current issues surrounding virtual schools. This description is focused upon three distinct areas: challenges, benefits, and limitations. Under the challenges, the authors see the new demands for school improvement and educational equity brought about by the No Child Left Behind legislation, funding constraints, and limited resources available to virtual schools, and the continued issue that technology has not affected teaching or learning in the same way that it has radically changed other aspects of society. Clark and Berge then describe the various benefits that virtual schools can bring, such as expanding access to educational opportunities to "minority, low-income, rural, inner-city, and smallschool students as well as for remedial and alternative learners and other targeted populations" (p. 12) and the ability to provide highquality learning opportunities in resource-rich learning environments that allow for individualized instruction, along with the ability to improve student outcomes and skills through the use of technology to access advanced-level courses, such as the Advanced Placement curriculum. The authors conclude by discussing the opportunity to provide choice to both the homeschooling population and through the use of cyber charter schools.
The limitations, as described by the authors, include the high cost to start virtual school programs and the need for stakeholder buy-in to maintain the cost of running the virtual school. Issues of access to the technology because of the digital divide that continues to exist in North America, along with whether or not a student is suitable for a virtual school program based upon their technology skills, level of motivation, and ability to work independently, are also of concern. The low retention rates, problems with accreditation, and low levels of public understanding and support can also plague virtual schools, according to Clark and Berge. …