Online Learning Studies Must Evaluate Individual Student Trajectories

By Robin Lake, CRPE

The “gotcha” research on charter schools and innovation continues, with the latest aimed at K12 Inc.’s online schools. There are plenty of important policy and oversight research questions around the performance of charter schools and online schools, but unsupported claims like the latest from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) are frustrating and unproductive.
The authors, Gary Miron and Jessica Urschel, compare average test scores of schools operated by online education provider K12 with conventional and charter schools operating in the same states. Miron and Urschel conclude that the overall performance in K12 operated schools is “weak” and make broad recommendations for policy on online learning.
The NEPC analysis, however, tells us nothing about whether the students attending these schools are better or worse off as a result of attending. This is because kids and families who choose online schools are not at all like those who don’t. Many teenage students go online after getting into serious trouble at school or because of a traumatic or disruptive event, such as a pregnancy or death in the family. For these students, having a full time online learning option can be a critical bridge during a difficult time, allowing them to re-enter the traditional school system after their crisis has passed. For many the alternative to on-line schooling is not being in school at all.
The performance of these students before they enter K12 is not like that of their peers in conventional schools. It’s impossible to know what value the program adds to their learning without taking that fact into account.
Any serious study of the impact of online programs, then, has to assess individual student trajectories, rather than making comparisons with all kids who are in regular schools. If kids are coming to the program five grade levels behind but leaving a year later only two grade levels behind, the NEPC paper would call that weak performance. Families might call that a game changing success, allowing a student to rejoin peers and get back on track to graduate.
Online learning is exploding in popularity, both among families who are looking for ways to serve kids who need public school options and by public school teachers and principals who want to find ways to create more personalized and effective classroom environments. We need more and rigorous studies of the diverse array of learning technologies available and thoughtful oversight policies, not a rush to judgment based on apples-to watermelon-comparisons.

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What's frustrating is that the press release accompanying this "study" claimed that K12 students are "falling further behind," as if they had any data on the students' starting test scores (they didn't). Not only are these researchers too dull (or perhaps dishonest) to know that you can't make claims about trends from cross-sectional data, various other scholars have plugged this "study" as if there were no problem with the completely unjustified claim about trends in test scores.

mary weeks

My son is going in to the 8th grade with k12 texas va. He is way ahead of the national avg in reading and in math he is ahead to. he is not falling behind he is moving ahead of the public school kids.
The b and m school fail my son and k12 helped my son .
When he was in 4th and 5th grade he wanted to quit school now he has that spark back.


My daughter's grades were awful in the conventional school when I took her out and put her in the online school where her grades went up. I don't think that they can be compared at all because for my daughter she couldn't stand the thought of going back to the regular school where she was being bullied by not only the students but the staff as well. For me, as her parent, it wasn't an option to leave her there either because I was not going to wait until she tried to commit suicide to do something about it. I think most studies can have the outcome that you want it to have based on the people that you put in your study. This is doing a disservice to people who need to have option.

Sarah Clark

We are going into our second year with GCA and we get the K12 materials. Last year our family had lots of family issues. We had family members in and out of the hospital. Sister in law in and out of mental hospitals. We were there thru all that. If my children had been in a brick and mortar school. They both would have failed. But instead My oldest did better on her CRCT scores than she ever did in Brick and mortar. I agree that each case needs to be looked at individually rather than as a whole. The reason we started GCA was because my daughter wasnt getting the education at school that she should have. The no child left behind hurt her instead of helping her. I wanna Thank GCA and K12 for this perfect opportunity!

KJ Miller

I am thankful for our MNVA option. I want them to look at the overall composition of the student body in the online schools. Many of them are medically fragile kids, who would cost the state hundreds of thousands in their educational career. My son has Muscular Dystrophy, ADHD, Aspergers. My daughter has ADHD. We find the online environment extremely beneficial for these types of issues. I can isolate the social aspect, and take it out of the day stress. Look at the kids the online school is servicing, then assess their grades and improvement!


I took a K12 class this year not because of any special circumstances but to get a mandatory class out of the way. My course was terrible. It was confusingly written and full of factual errors. By the way, look at the top of the page K12, Inc. is one of this sites "advocacy partners." There may be flaws in this study but K12 produces a horrible-quality product and is ripping off schools. Please look carefully at your children's online courses and make sure that their courses are accurate and clearly written.


There are two issues being discussed here. First, the importance and benefit of having an online option. I think that is very very beneficial to have such an option, which is why I suggested that my child take one course. Second issue, the quality of at least some of the Aventa/K12 options is very poor. Some might be good, but quality control and overall vision of what is to be taught is, at the very kindest, a mess.

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