Nearly all of the 20 largest US school districts will offer online schooling options this fall. Over half of them will be offering more full-time virtual school programs than they did before the pandemic. The trend seems likely to continue or accelerate, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat.
That's a problem. School closings over the last two years have inflicted severe educational and emotional damage on American students. Schools should now be focusing on creative ways to fill classrooms, socialise kids and convey the joy of collaborative learning — not on providing opportunities to stay home.
Historically, various forces have pushed for online education — not all of them focused on improving education. These include: the quest for cheaper, more efficient modes of schooling; the push to limit the influence of teachers unions by concentrating virtual teachers in non-union states; and a variety of medical and social factors that lead some students and families to prefer online learning.
Since the pandemic, some virtual programs have reasonably stressed medically fragile students. But others are seizing on online education in a rushed effort to shore up public-school enrollments, which plummeted in some cities. The prevalence of these programs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and New York is particularly worrying, as they target poor and minority students who are likely to be particularly ill-served by online school options.
A new study shows that while young children, especially, are bouncing back from the pandemic-era academic doldrums, the gap between high-poverty and low-poverty schools remains greater than it was pre-pandemic.
Research, where it exists, shows consistently worse educational outcomes for online schools than for traditional public schools.
Students in cyber schools do their coursework mostly from home and over the internet, with teachers often located in different states and time zones. There is little comprehensive information about the curricula, student-teacher ratios, how much actual teaching occurs, or what if any academic supports are provided by the schools.
The adverse impact of the pandemic on the emotional well-being and social skills of children — one-third of school leaders reported a surge in disruptive student behaviour during the past school year — is a cautionary lesson for online learning.
Graham Browne, the founder of Forte Preparatory Academy, an independent charter school in Queens, New York, said recently that he saw a sharp increase in "aggressive or threatening" behaviour, especially among 6th graders who spent much of the previous two years online.
During a recent multi-day field trip to a camp run by the Fresh Air Fund, Browne said he noticed that during team-building exercises, such as figuring out how to carry a large object over a low bridge, students resorted to screaming at each other. Previously, he said, they would have worked out a strategy for manoeuvring the object together.
Equally concerning, when the school offered an online option during the 2020-2021 school year, Browne found that close to half of his highest achieving 8th graders — those taking algebra rather than pre-algebra — selected the option because it gave them the flexibility to pursue academics at their own pace.
"Our school is small, so having such a large portion of high-performing students out of the building has an impact on peer tutoring, student morale, and a culture of team building that we emphasise at school," Browne said.
The most immediate threat, however, comes from the private sector and especially from for-profit virtual charter schools, which are of notoriously poor quality; just 30% met state school-performance standards, compared with 53% for district-run virtual schools before the pandemic. These schools, which spend heavily on advertising, boomed during school lockdowns, when traditional schools were struggling to offer online instruction. At the nation's largest for-profit network, enrollment grew 45% to 157,000 students during the past year.
What kids need most are robust in-person learning opportunities and the chance to experiment. Schools also need to maintain reassuring safety protocols as Covid-19 variants continue to spread.
This is the time for schools to adopt engaging learning approaches, such those of a high-poverty school in the Bronx that uses the Bronx River as a science laboratory, and of the Leander, Texas school district that turned over the development of an anti-bullying strategy to high school students, in the process building young leaders.
Some of these projects could be adapted to a hybrid format by giving students the option to do some work remotely, while also emphasising in-person collaboration.
What makes no educational sense is the rush to embrace online schooling. Experience has demonstrated its severe disadvantages. State oversight isn't strong enough to mitigate them. Before barreling ahead, research should be financed and conducted by independent scholars to pinpoint the potential benefits. Until that happens, schools should do everything they can to keep kids in classrooms.
Andrea Gabor is former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.