Despite enormous efforts to improve high schools, progress has been slow and uneven. But one important educational innovation, virtual schooling, can greatly accelerate the pace of reform.
Nationwide, virtual schools are popular and growing rapidly. Over 700,000 k-12 students took virtual courses during the 2005-06 school year-almost double the estimate of students taking online learning courses just three years earlier. Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and South Dakota recently became the latest of the two dozen states to establish state-run, virtual high school-programs. And, for most students, virtual schooling doesn't replace traditional high schools, but integrates with and enhances what they have to offer.
Though online education is controversial in some circles, research shows that it can be as effective as traditional classroom-learning. More importantly, the best virtual schools excel in areas that reformers have already identified as crucial to high-school improvement: more personalized learning environments, highly qualified teachers, challenging coursework, and relevant learning opportunities. A recent analysis of k-12, distance education research published by Learning Point Associates, an educational research organization, underscores that point: "Virtual schools may represent the best hope for bringing high school reform quickly to large numbers of students."
But in many states and districts, virtual schooling initiatives are not included in systemic high-school improvement strategies. For example, many states are attempting to raise graduation standards and increase the level of rigor in their schools' curricula, but they neglect to consider how virtual schools can help. Importantly, virtual schools can also give a boost to students who struggle in class. As John Bailey, former director of the U.S. Office of Educational Technology, points out, virtual schools serve students "at both ends of the bell curve-not just AP students but also those needing remediation."
High- school reform is challenging. But policymakers, educators, and advocates will have their best chance to accelerate and deepen it if they develop purposeful strategies to integrate virtual-schooling options. Some solutions are only possible with the help of virtual-schooling resources. For example, one Kentucky high school, intent on improving the quality of instruction for its ninth-grade, at-risk students, shifted its best instructors-the Advanced Placement teachers-to these students. This shift was only possible because the school could augment its highly qualified teaching force with high quality, virtual AP teachers and courses.
Additional examples for using virtual learning to support high school reform include:
- Reformers looking to add rigor to high school curricula, especially in advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, can use virtual-schooling options to ensure access to such courses for rural and otherwise underserved schools.
- Small schools can use it to maintain the broad menu of subjects offered by large, comprehensive high schools. To enhance personalization, online options allow students to customize pace, sequencing, and interests to fit their particular needs.
- Educators focused on improving students' transition to college can use virtual learning to help youngsters experience the more self-directed, collaborative form of learning often found at the post-secondary level. They can also work closely with early-college programs and post-secondary institutions to offer online courses that bridge the high school/college gap.
- To prevent drop outs, schools can use virtual classes to offer rapid remediation and credit recovery-before the year ends and a student fails a course.
Virtual schooling will continue to grow and become increasingly common. It's up to state and local policymakers to determine whether it becomes a powerful innovation that helps to drive critical reforms in high schools throughout the nation.