Skip to main content Beware Back-to-School Stories Celebrating Online Education

This year, there’s a certain type of “back-to-school” news story you’re bound to see in local newspapers.

The stories typically start with: “[Student A] goes to school in her pajamas, and [student B] often does her lessons with a pet dog or cat on her lap.” Instead of attending “typical schools,” these students get their education via a computer connected to the internet.

The internet-based schools have different names – cyber, virtual, online – but the gist of these stories is that “thousands of students head back to class without leaving their homes,” and it’s all good.

“It’s the first day of school for Sophia Riella, but the 8-year-old never had to change out of her pajamas. All she had to do was log on to her computer at her Northwest Reno home,” a Nevada news outlet gushes. The instruction, via computer, is really much more “personalized” than being in a classroom with a live teacher and other students, Sophia’s mom enthuses, and the curriculum is more “customized,” (despite the fact it’s created by a multinational education conglomerate headquartered in the United Kingdom).

These stories often spotlight the benefits to individual students, like an Arizona student whose flexible online school schedule allowed him to pursue a career as a professional dancer, or a California online school student operating a cooking blog and perfecting her yoga, or a Oklahoma student becoming the youngest member of the U.S. competitive kayaking team while attending an online school.

These stories rarely consider how well these online schools serve the needs of most students and families, however, especially whether they are the best use of precious tax dollars devoted to education.

In situations like the stories cited above, for example, parents must have time, flexibility, and resources to provide the guidance and support their children would normally receive at a traditional public school.

And startlingly absent is any objective evidence of the academic performance of these online schools. A 2012 study of the nation’s largest online school operation, K12 Inc., found its students “lag behind their counterparts on federal and state measures of math and reading proficiency.”

And rarely do reporters seem to even bother looking for “another side” to online schools’ “success” stories. If they did, the would be richly rewarded with reams of negative press.

An eight-month investigation by Education Week found, a Colorado cyber charter school with a 19 percent graduation rate; an Ohio cyber that inflated student attendance by nearly 500 percent; a Pennsylvania cyber founder who siphoned $8 million in public money (including $300,000 to buy himself an airplane); and a Hawaii cyber founder who hired her nephew as the athletic director—for a school with no sports teams.

There are exceptions to the one-sided reporting. A Pennsylvania reporter interviewed an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Alabama who explained that, “every time they do a study that looks purely at academics, the cyber charter schools underperform compared to the traditional public schools.” The reporter also cited a well-known national study from Stanford thatfound, “compared to similar students at traditional schools, cyber students were 72 days behind in reading, on average. They fell 180 days, or a full school year, behind in math. In Pennsylvania, cyber charters consistently perform worse than brick-and-mortar schools on state accountability measures.”

An Ohio journalist revealed that nine online schools in the state have been “ordered to refund money to the Ohio Department of Education for overstating their enrollment.” One virtual school isn’t opening this school year, “after being ordered to repay $4.2 million for students who weren’t logging on.” Another, the state’s largest online charter school, “is on the hook for $60 million, and has laid off hundreds of staff members.”

But these caution signs are invariably buried at the bottom of these articles, under all the hype about “innovation” and “customization.”

A likely source for the rash of online school puff pieces is the online education industry itself, which uses well-oiled public relations machinery to bombard time-strapped, under-resourced local reporters with glowing publicity. There are numerous examples of this PR at work in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, and Minnesota.

Cherry picking feel-good stories about individual students who have benefited from a particular circumstance is part of a reporter’s job. It’s all well and good that an online school can be a good fit for a student here and there. But to bury evidence that, on balance, these schools are not for the vast majority of families, and often provide loopholes for bad actors to make a buck off the public taxpayer, is a disservice to local communities.

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messagi...