March 18 2013 12:00 AM

More research is needed before cyber school expansion becomes law, education expert says

Tuesday, Jan. 3 — Full-time online schools are becoming the next big education craze, but not everyone is sold on the idea, an executive from the Michigan Association of School Boards says.

Last year, the Michigan Senate narrowly passed a bill that would remove the state cap on full-time cyber schools, allowing for unlimited expansion throughout the state, said Peter Spadafore, assistant director of government relations for the association. The bill is sitting in the House, but educators may not be willing to loosen restrictions just yet.

“Cyber schools in Michigan are less than 2 years old, and there’s not a lot of research and data on them to know if they’re doing a good job,” he said.

Michigan has two full-time cyber schools, the state limit allowed by law, but they haven’t been in existence long enough to compare them to student learning in a traditional school setting, said Spadafore, who is also a member of the Lansing Board of Education. The schools are the Michigan Connections Academy commissioned by Ferris State University, which serves 400 students, and the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy commissioned by Grand Valley State University, which serves 1,000 students.

But Jamey Fitzpatrick, president of the Michigan Virtual School, a supplemental online K-12 course provider, said online programs have a lot of benefits.

“There are students that we’ve served in the last 10 or 11 years that have had extenuating circumstances that make it difficult to go to school,” Fitzpatrick said.

Some of those students were training to be professional athletes or for the Olympics and had numerous competitions that made it difficult to attend classes regularly, he said. Others suffered from severe injuries or diseases, such as cancer, which made it difficult for them to leave their house.

Online courses also allow students to access subjects that they otherwise would not have an opportunity to take at their school such as Mandarin Chinese and advanced placement courses, Fitzpatrick added. Most of the school’s enrolled students take one or two courses to supplement their traditional school’s courses.

Perhaps the greatest benefit is that online courses prepare students for online learning, whether at college or for on-the-job training later in life, he said.

“I think the biggest thing we’re giving young people is a chance to learn how to learn in an online learning environment,” Fitzpatrick said.

While almost no research exists on full-time online schooling, studies have shown that blending online and traditional classes provides a good balance of flexibility and structure to ensure students perform as well or better compared to traditional classrooms, according to a 2011 Colorado study by the National Education Policy Center.

“As we look at data from other states, a blended option is really working best,” Spadafore said. “That’s proving to be the most beneficial for students.”

Fitzpatrick said full-time online education options might not be a good fit for every student, and options should exist so parents can optimize their child’s learning.

“I think the majority of teenagers would not want their entire online educational experience delivered in an online setting and I think that has to do with the social nature of teenagers,” he said. “Just like a face-to-face educational experience exclusively may not be a good fit for some kids, an online experience exclusively may not be a good fit for some kids.”

Spadafore agrees and said the Colorado report suggests that children in an all-online program perform at the same level or worse than the traditional schools they left.

The report revealed concerns about the qualifications of teachers in cyber schools, the validity of student work when there is no contact between student and teacher and the lack of evaluation of cyber programs to assess their effectiveness.

Spadafore has similar concerns.

“There should be some level of accountability,” he said. “If the first time you hear that you’re not doing well is the state assessment, it’s too late.”

Spadafore said more research is needed to determine how successful full-time cyber schools are before new legislation allows them to expand.

“It took 20 years to lift the cap on (charter schools),” he said. “We need a few more years before we look at the expansion of cyber schools.”

Fitzpatrick agreed that removing the cap on cyber schools without any regulation may be “going from one extreme to the other,” but he said the ultimate decision should rest with parents and students on what methods of learning work best for them.

“I think one thing that we need to be mindful of is that the Internet is here to stay,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t think we should be looking at this as an either or. I would suggest that we really look at the needs of the student.”