When Online Schools Can Help

As massive cuts in public education create more dissatisfaction with traditional public school, a new choice is appealing to parents desperate for a third option, one that claims to allow less homework and speak the digital language of modern kids: online or “virtual” schools. There are over 300 such schools in the United States, in which all curriculum is offered online, plus a handful of hybrid online plus brick-and-mortar academies. To some, they sound like the perfect alternative, but what about the quality of education they are providing? Are there any benefits to being educated online?

The hard data seems to say no: According to a National Education Policy Center (NEPC) report, 200,000 K-12 aged U.S. students were enrolled in online schools (both for-profit and non-profit) in 2013, yet their rate of graduating students from high school within four years was just 37.6%, compared to 79.4% in traditional schools. The same report found as much as a 28 point difference—with the online schools at a deficit—in the ratings that rank schools based on students’ performance on standardized tests. Overall, the report found the performance rates of online schools as compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts significantly underwhelming.

So how do online schools continue to find success attracting students, despite their low performance rates? That may have much to do with their appeal to parents whose children struggle with the rigors and limits of traditional school, suffer from psychiatric diagnoses, or who experience bullying and other social dysfunctions. In certain instances where a child’s mental health puts them at a high risk for self-harm and suicide, online schools may appear to offer the best, or only, solution for families in distress.

Kari Milich of Spokane, Washington knew her son Peyton was having social problems in eighth grade. The issues started out small, such as a kid stealing his glasses, or teasing him. But one day Milich received a text from her son saying, “Mom, I want to kill myself.”

“Once you hear words like that, you can’t take that lightly,” she says. “Kids in middle school can be incredibly cruel and sniff out weakness; I remember.”

Milich had heard radio commercials for online schools and looked into her options, settling on the first one with availability, Columbia Virtual Academy, based in Olympia, WA. Peyton began in October 2014 as an eighth-grader and is now a freshman in high school.

Peyton spends approximately six hours a day at home behind his computer engaged in virtual lessons in social studies, language arts, science, math and PE—though the latter is theoretical, not physical. He makes weekly contact with his main teacher, “Babs,” keeps an activity log, and sets out a “pace calendar” that estimates how long his work will take him.

Prone to frustration when he doesn’t understand something, the transition wasn’t immediately better for her son, says Milich. “I stupidly assumed he knew how to do everything in the new school.” Within the first month she and her husband feared that he was headed back toward suicidal ideation, but that was quickly alleviated with their support.

“He went from an unresponsive kid who would lock himself in his room, alternating with outburst of tears and yelling,” says Milich, “and now he’s turned back into the polite, gentlemanly man-child.”

Critically, Peyton’s father works from home, so he can provide both oversight and assistance to his son, a situation that may not be the case for every family that chooses this route of schooling.

Though Milich and her family feel they have found a workable solution via online education, Deborah Stipak, dean of education at Stanford’s School of Education, warns that removing children from school purely to deal with social troubles may not be ideal. “Some kids with social problems need to be with peers more than less,” she notes. “It depends on the nature of the problem.”

“If I were choosing an online school as a parent,” says Stipak, “I’d want to look at the quality of the educational program. Simply going online and taking tests is not very good education.”

For some families with children with significant diagnoses, online schools can offer a temporary solution to larger problems. When Katie Durkee’s son entered third grade, “He became very unsettled and school became a huge source of anxiety for him,” she says. Her son was an honor student at the time, despite diagnoses of trauma disorder, ADHD and what they thought was bipolar disorder.

Her son finished third grade by spending a week at the local children’s hospital on suicide watch, having auditory hallucinations and seizures. He was later diagnosed with high functioning autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and temporal lobe epilepsy.

It became clear to Durkee that they could not put him back in school for fourth grade. While the online school they enrolled him in “took away the stress of the classroom and the spotlight off his inability to interact like the typical children,” ultimately, she says, online schooling was not the right long-term solution for their family. “He had more significant learning issues than I could deal with at home,” she admits.

Now, Durkee and several other parents are looking into opening their own school.

Because of the many problems associated with online learning—employing lower wage workers like “academic coaches” rather than teachers; putting profits ahead of performance at the expense of students, as detailed in a New York Times expose of online education provider K-12, Inc.—the NEPC is now recommending that fewer such schools be opened, and that the existing ones be subject to better auditing. Still, for families whose children have specific, severe needs, some online models, particularly ones with high student engagement may continue to be worth investigating. These schools use Skype technologies so students can actually communicate with each other and requiring project-based learning rather than simple test-taking.

“Some online schools create social networks where you’re working with peers and in groups and even though it’s virtual, you’re still face to face [and] doing projects with peers,” notes Dr. Stipak of Stanford.

While studies do not agree conclusively on the long-term effects of screen time for children over the age of two, Stipak says, “We do know that experience with peers is really important for social interaction.” Depriving students of that comes at its own cost, one that should not be taken lightly by parents weighing their options.

A rich educational environment should look the same whether online or in the flesh, Stipak concludes. “All the things that make a good brick-and-mortar school should apply to an online school: active learning, coaching, peer interactions, scaffolding and feedback.” That, to be sure, is what every child deserves.


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