Laboratories of Reform: Virtual High Schools and Innovation in Public Education

Reports & Briefs | June 7, 2007
Related Issue(s): Virtual Learning
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There has been no shortage of solutions for improving the nation's public schools. School leadership, teacher quality, standards, testing, funding, and a host of other issues have crowded reform agendas. But an important trend in public education has gone largely unnoticed in the cacophony of policy proposals: the rise of a completely new class of public schools—"virtual" schools using the Internet to create online classrooms—that is bringing about reforms that have long eluded traditional public schools.

Virtual schools served 700,000 students in the 2005–06 school year, mostly at the high school level. Although that is only a fraction of the nation's 48 million elementary and secondary students, it is almost double the estimate of students taking online learning courses just three years earlier, and it's a number that is likely to continue to rise rapidly. In 2006–07, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota became the latest of the two dozen states to establish state-run virtual high school programs. And in Michigan, the legislature went a step further with a mandate requiring students to complete an online learning experience to graduate from high school.

Online learning, of course, is not new. Over 90 percent of public colleges and universities offer online courses, and high schools have offered virtual learning for over a decade. Though online education is controversial in some circles, research shows that it can be as effective as traditional classroom learning. The small body of research focused on the effectiveness of K–12 virtual schooling programs supports findings of similar studies on virtual courses in higher education. They find "no significant difference" in student performance in online courses versus traditional face-to-face learning.

But the new, publicly funded online schools are proving to be more than merely another delivery system for students. In a wide range of other industries, and now, increasingly in K–12 education, the Internet has enabled deep structural changes. In each case, new organizations developed alternative management structures, distribution methods, and work models.

iTunes, Apple Computer's immensely popular music software, for example, has radically changed the way people collect, listen to, and share music. With its online store and a management system for listening to music and watching videos, consumers, whether music enthusiasts or casual listeners, are no longer confined to the selections in stores. Nor do they have to purchase an artist’s pre-determined collection of songs on an album; instead, they can personalize their music experiences. As a result, the entire music industry has changed, and most noticeably in retail, where brick-and-mortar stores are finding new ways to integrate online music options into their more conventional settings.

Virtual schooling is driving the same sorts of transforming changes in public education. While the importance of effective teaching and learning has not changed, the Internet has enabled educators to significantly alter the experience of schooling. Virtual schools are personalizing student learning and extending it beyond the traditional school day. They've created new models for the practice of teaching—with opportunities to easily observe, evaluate, and assist instructors. And they are pioneering performance-based education funding models.

Many school reformers have sought these same changes in traditional public schools. Where successful, virtual schooling demonstrates that innovative reforms can be readily integrated into the public school system. As a result, it is increasingly important to understand both the innovations that are emerging from online schooling and their potential to leverage reform on a far larger scale in public education.

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