Almost all of the 20 largest US school districts will offer online schooling options this fall. More than half of them will offer more full-time virtual school programs than before the pandemic. The trend looks set to continue or accelerate, according to analysis by Chalkbeat.
It is a problem. School closures over the past two years have inflicted severe educational and emotional damage on American students. Schools should now focus on creative ways to fill classrooms, socialize children and convey the joy of collaborative learning, not the option of staying at home.
Historically, various forces have driven online education – not all have focused on improving education. These include: finding cheaper and more efficient modes of schooling; the desire 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 grabbing online education in a hasty effort to prop up public school enrollment, which has plummeted in some cities. The prevalence of these programs in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and New York is particularly concerning, as they target poor and minority students who are likely to be particularly underserved by online school options.
A new study shows that while young children, in particular, are recovering from the pandemic-era school slump, the gap between high and low poverty schools remains wider than it was before the pandemic. pandemic.
Research, where it exists, shows consistently poorer academic outcomes for online schools than for traditional public schools.
Cyber school students take their classes primarily from home and over the Internet, with teachers often located in different states and time zones. There is little comprehensive information on curricula, student-teacher ratios, the amount of actual teaching provided, or whether academic supports are provided by schools.
The negative impact of the pandemic on children’s emotional well-being and social skills – a third of school leaders reported an increase in disruptive student behavior in the last 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, recently said he has seen a sharp increase in “aggressive or threatening” behavior, especially among sixth graders who have passed 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 shouting at each. other. Previously, he said, they would have devised a strategy to maneuver the object together.
Equally concerning, when the school offered an online option in the 2020-2021 school year, Browne found that nearly half of its top-performing eighth graders — those who took algebra instead than pre-algebra – had chosen the option because it gave them the flexibility to pursue their studies at their own pace.
“Our school is small, so having such a large portion of high-achieving students outside of the building impacts peer tutoring, student morale, and a team-building culture that we put the emphasis on. emphasis at school,” Browne said.
The most immediate threat, however, comes from the private sector and especially from for-profit virtual charter schools, which are notoriously shoddy; only 30% met public school performance standards, compared to 53% for district-run virtual schools before the pandemic. These schools, which spend a lot on advertising, exploded during school closures, when traditional schools struggled to offer online education. At the nation’s largest for-profit network, enrollment grew 45% to 157,000 students in the past year.
What children need most are strong in-person learning opportunities and the ability to experiment. Schools must also maintain reassuring safety protocols as variants of COVID-19 continue to spread.
Now is the time for schools to adopt engaging learning approaches, like those of a very poor school in the Bronx that uses the Bronx River as a science laboratory, and the school district of Leander, Texas, which entrusted the development of an anti-bullying strategy program for high school students, in the process of training young leaders.
Some of these projects could be adapted to a hybrid format by giving students the option of doing remote work, while emphasizing in-person collaboration.
What makes no sense educationally is the rush to embrace online education. Experience has demonstrated its serious drawbacks. State surveillance is not strong enough to mitigate them. Before moving forward, research should be funded and conducted by independent academics to identify potential benefits. Until that happens, schools should do everything they can to keep children in classrooms.
(Andrea Gabor, former editor of Business Week and US News & World Report, is Bloomberg Professor of Business Journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York and author of “After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business”. of Reform.”)