January 30th, 2012
07:05 AM ET

Virtual schools on the rise, but are they right for K-12 students?

by Athena Jones, CNN

CHANTILLY, VIRGINIA (CNN) - It's a Tuesday morning in January, and seventh-grader Katerina Christhilf is learning algebra. But it's no ordinary class. This one takes place entirely online, led by a teacher a few miles away.

As part of her training to become a ballerina, Katerina takes dance lessons four times a week, including up to eight hours on Fridays. All that training makes it hard to go to a conventional school, so she takes science, literature, composition, vocabulary, history, music, art and French - a full course-load - from the comfort of her home, through Virginia Virtual Academy, a program run by K12 Inc. that began operating in the state in 2009.

"Ballet is really important to me and it's usually in the mornings, so if I went to school I would only be able to go on the weekends," Katerina explained. "Sometimes I'll study in the morning and I'll do a few classes and then I'll go to ballet for maybe like three or four hours and I'll come back home and I'll do some more."

Katerina is one of a growing number of students who go to school online full time. About a quarter of a million students in kindergarten through 12th grade were enrolled in full-time online schools last year, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a 25% increase over the previous year. Some parents choose these schools because their children are struggling in traditional schools; others do so for their flexible schedules.

But as the number of students learning online full time has grown, so have questions about the effectiveness of that approach.

"There's so much more to learning than content acquisition," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a teachers union that supports the use of some online content to enhance learning in brick-and-mortar schools. "There's socialization. There's discussion in classroom. And as a teacher for 23 years, you know there are times when they just need a little encouragement. You've got to be able to look at their face and know whether they need a push or maybe a hug."

K12 tries to incorporate interaction into its curriculum. Katerina listens to her teacher's instructions through a microphone and follows along with the on-screen lesson, clicking from page to page and solving math problems. She can ask questions by typing into a chat box or using her microphone, and she uses emoticons like a smiley face or a confused face, and thumbs up and thumbs down buttons, to indicate whether she understands the concepts being taught.

"We always try to keep them active," said Katerina's teacher, Jessica Henry, who has taught math for 12 years, the last two of them online. Henry said she sometimes pauses a class to call a student at home if they are not participating at the level expected. "In this environment we also have to do family conferences once every month for half an hour. So not only do I know the student, I know the parents well. They're comfortable contacting me through e-mail and they contact me all the time."

Students also send in monthly work samples that are graded, and take frequent tests, called "assessments," to track their learning. But not all of Katerina's work is done online. K12 ships additional materials, like textbooks and worksheets, to students to be used offline. And Katerina takes part in field trips about once a month to spend time with other students and with her teachers.

K12 is one of the nation's largest online educators. Founded in 1999, the company offers full-time online public school programs for at least some portion of the kindergarten through 12th grade population in 28 states. The company contracts with school districts that use state aid to offer public school students who enroll through their districts a free full-time online education - though out of district registration fees sometimes apply. K12 also sells products and services, including individual courses, to more than 2,000 school districts nationwide, all of which helped it bring in some $522 million in revenues in fiscal year 2011, nearly 36% more than in the previous year.

"School districts want this, teachers want this and students want this," said K12 Founder and CEO Ron Packard. "Five years ago we were about one-fifth the size we are now . And I would expect, we've grown fivefold over that period, that we would probably fivefold again over the next, you know, five to ten years. This is a movement that's just beginning, so we're in the first few innings of a long game."

A matter of debate

Packard describes technology-based learning as powerful and believes that as technology becomes more ubiquitous, virtual schooling will make more and more sense. Still, critics of full-time virtual schools worry about the quality of education that companies like K12 deliver.

A U.S. Department of Education report published in September 2010 found that more study was needed to determine the effectiveness of online education for kindergarten through 12th grade students.

Data from the Virginia Department of Education showed that, as a group, students at Virginia Virtual Academy did not perform as well on state reading, math, science and history tests as their counterparts at brick-and mortar-schools in Carroll County, where K12 has a contract. Packard said many of the academy's 400 students were behind grade level when they joined and that K12 data shows performance improves the longer a student is enrolled.

"You've got to measure where they start from, right? And that's the big question. So the question is, are they learning at a higher rate in a virtual school than they did previously?" he said. "That school is new, so the students couldn't have been there all that long before they took the test."

Using taxpayer dollars to fund online public education is also a concern for those worried about a public school funding system that is already strapped in many places, especially as states facing budget shortfalls cut back.

"School funding is in such dire straits right now," said Van Roekel. "If they take that money out to enhance some - a few - or private enterprise because 'I sell good online curriculum,' that's a mistake for students. They suffer."

Supporters and critics of virtual schools agree that online learning doesn't work for all students and that parental involvement matters. Bright, highly motivated students may thrive, while those who struggled in ordinary schools may continue to struggle online. Parents of K12 Inc. students are expected to act as "learning coaches" to help facilitate their children's learning in the lower grades.

The debate over online education is sure to go on as the companies that provide these services continue to expand. In the meantime, after receiving top scores on state tests in history, reading and math last year, according to her mother, Katerina and her family believe it's the right choice for her.

"I think it should be an option for people who want to do it to be able to do it," said her mother, Elena Christhilf.

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soundoff (41 Responses)
  1. Jay Brinker

    No need for these virtual schools other than to defund public schools, undermine public school teachers and redistribute taxpayer funds into the pockets of private companies making profits with little if any oversight.

    February 11, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  2. vintage 274

    I have a Masters degree in education, another in my field (English literature), and a total of over 200 credits of college courses over my lifetime. I was an instructor of other teachers and a paid teacher evaluator. I also have homeschooling experience with my own child, and I can promise you that I did NOT feel competent enough in ALL subjects that I could HONESTLY say my child was getting the BEST education possible at home. If you as a parent do not have advanced degrees; if you are not trained in educational methodology; if you cannot afford to hire or barter for tutors in specialized subjects; if you do not have access to GOOD research library (not a small public library with dated materials); if your ONLY resource other than yourself is a canned curriculum or online schooling, then I guarantee you your child is not getting the benefits of a full education, no matter how much you rationalize what you're doing. It takes a village to raise a child. That village needs to include specialists in: English, foreign language, history, science, math, physical education, etc. No matter how smart or how educated you are, you can't be all of those. Despite some problems, brick and mortar schools offer far more than any homeschooling effort. The problems in public schooling are the result of a culture of uninvolved parents who have not been well educated themselves, in whose homes education was either not valued, not supported, or not available. Homeschoolers are better off than kids in whose homes education is not advanced or supported, but they are NOT better off than kids who have full home support of educate AND utilize the advantages of schools to their fullest.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  3. Ava

    I think that we should be able to go to a regualr school and not on computer. Kids need to be able to talk to people and know their surrondings. if they have school on the computers then they will just ask their parents for help or search the answers on google. Go schools on the real world no internet.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • Joe Smith

      Ava, I can see that you received a public education through your grammar skills. I am a regular public school teacher and we homeschool our children mainly due to the negative social issues found in the public schools. When people talk about "socialization", I do not want my kid to socialize with thieves, thugs, delinquents, liers, gang members, bullies, attempted murders, etc. that are found at the local public school. We are involved in several "social" groups such 4H, church, sports leagues, homeschool support groups and plenty more.

      February 11, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  4. mike

    My son attends a early college high school. He takes college and high school classes at the same time. When he finishes he will have an associate degree and a high school diploma. His classes are on a college campus and he is treated like an adult which is totally opposite of the way most high schools treat their kids. Treating them as adults has really made the kids grow up and they are generally more reapectful of adults.

    February 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • vintage 274

      It's not just that students like your son are treated like adults (many high school teachers treat their students like adults and have high expectations for their classroom behavior and successes), it's that kids like your son who are given the opportunity to succeed and who are supported by their parents to succeed actually DO. The problem in our schools is that the majority of kids come from homes in which education, responsibility, respect are NOT priorities. School for these kids (and, as a result, for the teachers and peers who have to deal with these kids on a daily basis) is a free-for-all. The single most important factor in a student's success (outside an excellent teacher) is home support in both education and personally responsible behaviors.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  5. Laraba

    We're homeschooling, but not through online schools so entirely separate from the public funded online schools. I have several homeschooling friends who switched to public funded online academies, and one and all the mothers have put a lot of time into assisting their children in learning, doing the work, etc. That is not a bad thing, but I doubt there are many children who can JUST use the online schools - they need support from their parents.

    As for the necessity of brick and mortar public school - well, there are children who thrive in traditional public schools, and others who die inside. I was valedictorian and went on to get a Ph.D. in engineering, so I guess you could say I am 'public school success story'. But I had a terrible time socially, felt bored in most subjects and frantically behind in one or two, and generally had a poor experience. School can be an agonizing experience for some young people. I'm thankful we are able to homeschool our children, and they are thriving. I appreciate that there are more options for schooling in this day and age. What works for one child will not work for another.

    February 7, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  6. kyle

    i think that regular school would be better because you get to interact with other students..........In virtual school u would not get to interact with other students and some kids might get lazy and gain weight...

    February 3, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Laurence Mechanic

      As we "progress" into a more technological era we are becoming the computers we use everyday. We crave information and are addicted to it–no matter how trivial it is. Hopefully we can figure out the error of our ways before it is too late. As a teacher, I see kids everyday interacting almost exclusively though technology, despite the fact that something is walking with them. Or even talking to them. http://www.informedteacher.com

      February 6, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Emily

      The student profiled in this article spends several hours a day with other people, and she's also a lot more physically active than kids who are stuck at desks in a classroom all day and then go home to do homework. Homeschoolers have more access to healthy food, good conversations, and a balanced lifestyle than kids who are in overcrowded classrooms waiting their turn to (hopefully) ask a question about something they don't understand.

      February 7, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
      • vintage 274

        While you make some good points, you paint a very stereoptyped and bleak picture of the average classroom. As a career educator who spent 20 years in the classroom and who also taught and evaluated teachers, I can promise you that classrooms are dynamic places in which students are fully engaged. The old idea of a teacher at the front of the room talking while students languish in their seats is long gone. Classrooms are filled with cooperative learning, projects that involve problem-solving and group work, students engaged in actual learning (not sitting waiting for answers), discussing, questioning, researching, sharing. I homeschooled one of my own children for several years and can understand the value of homeschooling in certain situations, but it is not better than, simply different from public schooling.

        February 9, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  7. becca

    technology is a great tool that enhances education but isn't meant to replace school or teachers. the internet has information and resources readily available with a simple search so virtual school should certainly be used if students and teachers are motivated to really use online resources. many students and teachers are motivated by using technology, digital images, and online searches but other students do not like it or lack access to technology. I agree that it depends on how motivated the student, teacher, and parent is to know whether virtual school is a good fit for specific children or if they would be better in traditional settings. I would be really interested in reading additional research about virtual online education for grades k-12

    February 2, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  8. claire

    I think that school is important because it is important to learn about working together. Also it is good to have many people discussing a topic not just learning facts.

    February 1, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  9. Valerie

    Virtual school looks interesting, but i doubt it would work properly for everyone. Kids just need to grow up, and accept the fact that they need to go to school. Sometimes you do not get along with everyone; grow up and get over it!

    February 1, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Emily

      The point of this article is that some kids can do a terrific job of growing up and going to school in non-traditional ways. For many, that can be a lot better than sitting in a classroom waiting for someone else to figure out a lesson, rushing through lunch, getting shoved in the locker room, and focusing more on what brand of shoes to buy than becoming educated.

      February 7, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  10. Jakyung

    It depends on what kind of student it is but If I rather pick traditional education because it's realistic so kids will feel they are studing for real.

    February 1, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  11. Meggie

    It really depends on the student. Those who are constantly distracted, have tons of other stuff to do, or just cannot take the pressures of regular school life should definately try an online school. However, if a parent just didn't want to get up every morning to take their child to a school building, or if a kiddo somewhere just didn't want to get up in the morning, that would not be a good reason to see about a virtual classroom. Simply not wanting to get up in the morning is probably why some parents and kids try out online classes, but that doesn't make that mentality right. I think that online school would provide less bullies, less distraction, and better hours, but it'd also end up expensive, with very little to no interaction with other kids. I personally prefer the traditional schools for me, but in kindergarten my answer would've been far different.

    February 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  12. Doug

    As a teacher and parent of a student who took an online course I have a mixed impression of its potential success. The teacher who taught her course assumed that she and the other students had learned previous materials to the level that she was familiar with. She never made an attempt to find out how much Latin these students had accomplished and assumed they were all equal to the AP class she was teaching elsewhere. We had communication problems; slow to return emails, lack of help sessions and ambiguous rules and guides for the class. She(teacher) never attempted to contact parents and I felt that this teacher was more concerned with her skills than the students success. However I feel there is a place for online learning but it will need more refinement and work , it holds good promise for some but is not the answer for all. It is plagued by for profit operators and just like public school, not so good teachers. It can become with work one more effective tool in teaching our kids.

    February 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  13. K

    NO! My homeschooled son has taken several virtual classes over the years and every year it gets worse. 1st, he learns nothing. The teachers do not teach, they merely present classes someone else has written–very basic simplistic classes. Ap English and the teacher doesn't even check his grammar and spelling. 2nd, the teachers get lazier every year. They don't answer their phone because they're out or one teacher was taking her own college classes so she wasn't available during the day. They can take up to a week or more to get back to the student. Don't expect an answer from email either. They don't care and they don't have to answer to anyone. One teacher took 2 weeks off for her college roommate's funeral, then her kid got sick so she took another week off, then Christmas holidays so she was out until January, then it was her annual leave so she was AWOL from early November until January. That means none of her students could take tests and they all fell months behind pace. The principal didn't care. They all get paid regardless. Virtual school is worthless.

    February 1, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  14. Jongwon

    Learning always implies that all students attend for the classes in the CLASSROOMS.

    On the view of my personal thoughts, affluent knowledge and enough information of what they want to know about can always be scored by various means.

    Therefore, in this much developed life, I cannot stick to the sole opinion, saying that 'attending the classes offline must be encouraged'. In addition, each student has his/her own character and some might do not really want to be attending the class by foot with no matter what reason he has.

    Most importantly, students could be more concentrating to the class when they have as less friends as possible around them..

    February 1, 2012 at 6:48 am |
  15. Make Me Genius

    As an online Children educational website makemegenius , we would like to comment that virtual learning can be a helping tool only but can't be all about learning. Physical experience, exposure to different cultures, social skills are few of the things where virtual learning can't compensate the real school experience.

    February 1, 2012 at 6:45 am |
  16. Make Me Genius

    As an online Children educational website http://www.makemegenius.com, we would like to comment that virtual learning can be a helping tool only but can't be all about learning. Physical experience, exposure to different cultures, social skills are few of the things where virtual learning can't compensate the real school experience.

    February 1, 2012 at 6:44 am |
  17. Minyoung

    It depends on student's personal types, but I think students should attend virtual school.
    School is not only a place for teaching academics, but also giving students a lots of opportunities to learn a real society.
    Students can learn how to interact with people by making friends. In addition, sometimes students can relieve their stresses by talking to friends in school. School means a lot to students!

    February 1, 2012 at 3:01 am |
  18. Maya

    With enough funding and oversight, this would be an incredibly valuable tool. One of the biggest problems with public education is that teachers force a uniform pace. This holds the smart kids back, and the less able often still can't keep up due to lack individual attention. Furthermore, it eliminates the distraction of students who just don't want to learn and who only come to school to socialize, screw around, and/or cause trouble. The public schools treat all kids as carbon copies of each other. This approach has proved to be disastrous.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • vintage 274

      As a career educator who also evaluated other teachers, I NEVER saw the sort of carbon copy teaching you speak about. That's a stereoptypical leftover from the era in which Boomers were schooled. Teachers are now taught to individualize education and in most states are held to those standards through individualized evaluations of student learning. That's why they complain about all the paperwork. It's called accountability. I can add, though, that in the one year that I had an opportunity to work with a so-called cutting edge online class, I saw an instant return to cookie cutter behavior. Education is much more than learning facts and rote memory. It depends upon discussion, group work, cooperative and dynamic learning, seeing what others are doing and thinking. None of that can be accomplished by computer.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  19. Greg

    My daughter is having to go to an Online School, due to medical issues. I am a lifelong learner and have no issue with teaching my child from home. I worry about other parents, that are not able teach their kids, either due to a lack of education or skills and what that may do to the child's education. I have another child, attending regular school, so I will be able to get a good idea of the education that the two different types will provide,

    January 31, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  20. Rachel

    Parents who are considering online schooling really need to do research. Many states don't have online programs, and many of the states that do have strict enrollment laws. In addition, in certain states there are some problems with the schooling. The school I attend was a great school until K12 came in, and now this year has been horrible. Next year they won't be here thankfully. There are many options, but parents HAVE to do the research.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  21. pam

    Unfortunately the only problem I see is that some parents actually try to do this out of laziness. You have to be very dedicated to pull this off. Until the kids are older, you are in charge of all their work and I take my hat off to teachers. We tried the k-12 program (which is excellent) with my 5 year old grandson and it was just too much work for me. I had his little brother to contend with as well. He wanted to go to school so we chose to quit. He is learning a lot more from school than he could learn with us. I do think they need the socialization. So if they are home schooled they need to be in other activities.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  22. Jep0316

    My daugher went to an online school after years of being "bullied" in a classroom and her grades improved . I think that schools are just too large now to handle the growing classroom sizes . Kids seem to do better online ..

    January 31, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  23. lilmorse

    My daughter has been taking online classes for 4 years now. She's takes an advanced English class and will be starting a science class tomorrow that is actually 2 years ahead of pace for her age. Her teachers talk with her daily online or on the phone and I speak to them weekly or more if needed. The "socialization" people speak of, well, she can do without constant classroom disruptions, kids who aren't interested in learning at all, and teachers who watch the clock all day. Public/private schools' "socialization" is overrated. What's great about the virtual school is that she can choose classes that interest her instead of spending years on cookie cutter classes. Right now she's studying forensics. I have no complaints!

    January 31, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  24. Vea Glenn

    Research shows online educational environments focus on making the learner the center of the educational experience . It fosters an environment that creates community building, and an environment that allows students to learn by observing another student's learning experience.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  25. Concerned Parent

    On0line learning has its place it education and should be looked at more closely. For right now when we look at the data it serves a certain demographic and population, those who have the financial ability to have a person at home calle the "learning coach". This lends to a demographic of upper class or upper middle class populations. The other issue we all need to look at is the success rates of these students, in the article it states"students come in behind" they do as well in all schools but the difference is how they leave. The initial data has shown lackluster performances against their peers in brick and mortar schools. The other issue is the high attrition rate at most of the online schools, which is usually about 40-45% of the students in many of the places across the country. Meaning they left farther behind than they were when they got there and must play catch-up at the new school they go to. There needs to be more done to look at these programs and unfortunately they will continue to make HUGE profits until the formal independent research is completed....Let's see how this goes!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • RVFamily

      Where are you getting your data from?
      I have been homeschooling my children for 2 years now. They have improved significantly and my children do not have to worry about bullies or popularity contest. And the concern about socialization...well we go to parks, have belonged to clubs (4-H, scouts,art classes, etc) and attended several events where they are not afraid to speak with others, ask questions and most importantly pay attention to what is being said. I am so happy that I can offer this to my children as I remember to well what school was like and how harsh it could be.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Emily

      High attrition rates don't mean that the kids are farther behind than when they started. Attrition rates refer to the students who leave the program. Many of them probably switched to a different program, returned to a traditional school, or moved to homeschooling with more traditional textbooks or computer programs. As for demographics, a lot of families with homeschoolers have stripped their budgets to the basics in order for one parent to leave the workforce. How much can most families save by cutting out the expenses for child care, two vehicles, commuting costs, etc.? Most of the homeschooling families I know are very frugal; they shop in thrift stores and usually cook from scratch. It's a healthier lifestyle in many ways. Their children are much more capable of taking care of children and a home than their peers are. As many here have said, though, the choice should be individual. Two friends each have some kids in traditional school, some being homeschooled, and some in private school. They're doing what's best for their families, and they put a lot of thought and consideration each year into how their kids are learning.

      February 7, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  26. biostat

    YES. I wish I had this as a kid. People can actually go at their own pace online, be it slower or faster. I believe our current educational system is outdated.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  27. mccabe


    January 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  28. bidsphere

    children needs personal interaction with their teachers and fellow students.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • scdeh

      As a mother and learning coach of an online student..our kids do get plenty of interaction with their peers and teacher daily through live online classes and also through field trips designed by the school. In addition our kids are more socialized with the general public because they spend a great deal of time out in the community, not stuck in a brick and mortar school with only their peer groups to learn from.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:48 pm |