Virtual Learning: What Works (and Doesn’t)

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

May 10, 2021

Ever since schools first started moving to remote learning in March of last year, the goal has always been the same: reopen school buildings and get students back in classrooms. But as we get increasingly closer to that goal—over 90% of schools are now offering in-person learning for students—there have been rumblings that, at least for some, remote learning could be here to stay.

A recent RAND study finds that 20% of surveyed districts plan to have fully virtual schooling options available for students next year. And parent surveys indicate continued support for remote learning options.

In theory, this sounds great. Providing educational opportunities that best fit students’ needs is what educators are constantly striving towards. But are students in online schools actually learning?

Prior to the pandemic, fully-virtual schools, while serving only a small portion of American students, were already experiencing exponential growth: in 2020, full-time virtual schools served over 330,000 students, about triple the number of students just ten years prior. Yet despite this growth, the research examining these schools is definitive: virtual schools consistently result in substantially weaker student academic performance.

CREDO—the gold standard for charter school studies—found that students in virtual charter schools had significantly less academic growth than similar peers in district schools: the equivalent of 72 days less growth in reading and 180 days less—an entire school year—in math. A study from the Annenberg Center at Brown University last year found negative impacts of 1-2 years on learning not only in math and reading, but also in science and social studies for students who attended full-time virtual schools in Georgia. The findings of these reports are consistent with similar studies.

State accountability systems also reflect the weak performance of virtual schools. The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) found that in the 2019-20 school year more than half (57.2%) of virtual schools received failing grades. And graduations rates in virtual schools (54.6%) fall substantially below the national average (85%).

These results aren’t surprising. Educators, families, and policymakers have continually bemoaned the difficulties related to online learning while pushing for schools to reopen, and charter supporters and opponents alike have long cited the worrying results of virtual charter schools. Yet these past results don’t necessarily predict the future of online schools.

First, the virtual school landscape represented in the research is dominated by for-profit charters. While there is little research distinguishing outcomes in for-profit charters from district run virtual schools, the NEPC study mentioned above found that district virtual schools fared slightly better on state accountability measures, with 49.3% receiving failing ratings, suggesting districts do marginally better at providing a quality online learning environment. Moreover, there is at least some evidence, from Europe, that online instruction can boost student achievement.  Given that districts are the ones planning for continued virtual options, we could see results that are at least a little better than the overall virtual school sector prior to the pandemic.

Second, educators and students writ large have gained significant experience with online learning over the past year. Many districts have invested heavily in new technology, to both strengthen online curriculum and make platforms more accessible for all students, and professional development has been provided to help educators better engage students in the online classroom environment.

Finally, it’s possible that the student population that attend this new generation of post-pandemic virtual schools may differ from those traditionally served by virtual schools in important ways. Given the universal exposure to remote options this past year, new remote schools could serve a diverse group of students and families who have found remote schooling to better fit their needs, including allowing students to have part-time jobs, taking care of family members, or avoiding the distractions, disruptions, or bullying that can come along with learning in person. If this is the case, we could potentially see vastly different results for virtual schools than years past.

Yet given the dismal results of virtual schools prior to the pandemic, we should view the continuation of distance education with skepticism. Moving forward, states and districts must diligently monitor the results of post-COVID distance learning. Any academic or opportunity to learn (attendance, access to advance course work, student to teacher ratio, etc.) data should be reported separately for virtual students and disaggregated by student subgroups to ensure students are not systematically being held to lower standards and receiving inequitable access to resources.

And we need to identify the characteristics of successful online programs to inform best practices and spur continuous improvement. Current research examining the instructional models, curricula, and types of student supports within virtual schools is limited, so a better understanding of how students are engaging with educators and instructional content—in conjunction with strong academic data—will be key for ensuring students have access to high-quality, rigorous instruction. To aid in this process, states and districts should be monitoring new and different types of data than those used to measure access to opportunity to learn in traditional classrooms, including the amount of synchronous instruction (live interaction between students and teachers) occurring each week, how long students are engaging with digital content, and work completion.

We must continue working to improve remote learning, but we should also hold virtual schools accountable and not hesitate to pull the plug if they fail to produce strong results. After more than a year of disrupted learning, our students—even those who opt into virtual schools—cannot afford any more missed opportunities to learn.


Nicholas Munyan-Penney is the Senior Policy Analyst for K-12 Policy at Education Reform Now, where he writes on a range of topics including resource equity, standards and accountability, public school choice, and teacher preparation. Prior to ERN, Nicholas worked as a high school English Language Arts teacher in New Hampshire, in both charter and traditional public schools.