This article was originally published in the Detroit News on June 30, 2021.
There is no shortage of topics on which we tend to separate into camps. When it comes to education, for instance, maybe you tend to favor traditional public schools over charter schools. Perhaps you want school to start after Labor Day rather than before or position yourself on a certain side in the phonics versus whole language debate. Or, dare I say, perhaps you share the perspective that addition should be taught from left to right instead of from right to left!
I’ve spent over a decade studying K-12 online learning, which due to the pandemic, has gotten significant attention, and I have spent considerable time investigating and understanding the arguments of the camps for and against K-12 virtual learning. Each of the last eight years, I have also authored a comprehensive report, published by Michigan Virtual, on K-12 virtual learning in Michigan. The recently-released report for the 2019-2020 school year–which reflects pre-pandemic data–provides schools a foundation to build on to increase student success.
According to the data, 60,000 Michigan K-12 students passed every single course they took online in the 2019-20 school year. For some students, that was a single course, but for others, it may have been 12 or more. Further, more than a quarter of Michigan K-12 schools with virtual learning had schoolwide pass rates of 90% to 100%. Clearly, some districts have figured out the formula for student success in online environments.
One of the biggest concerns with virtual education is equity. As an example, the overall virtual pass rate for African American or Black students in 2019-2020 was 15 percentage points below that of White students. At the same time, what we found when we looked at student virtual learning performance and race was that for schools with higher virtual learning outcomes (80% or higher virtual pass rates), the equity gap dramatically closes. In the 44% of schools who achieved 80% higher virtual pass rates or more, the virtual pass rate for African American or Black students was 86%, and the performance gap between it and the White rate dropped to four percentage points. This signals that schools who have overall success with online education have also found a way to achieve more equitable outcomes.
This pattern was also present when we looked at students in poverty. Students in poverty accounted for almost 70% of the virtual enrollments — despite only representing about 50% of Michigan K-12 students — and these students had a virtual pass rate that was 18 percentage points lower than it was for students who were not in poverty. Yet, for students in the more than 540 Michigan K-12 schools that had virtual pass rates of 80% or higher, the outcomes significantly improved. In these schools, students in poverty only generated about half of the virtual enrollments, meaning they were not being selected disproportionately to take online courses. More importantly, students in poverty passed their virtual courses 86% of the time, and the performance gap between them and students not in poverty closed to six percentage points. And these results happened in geographically diverse schools across the state: rural and urban communities, cities, towns, and suburbs alike. The data show that, when done well, virtual education can address equity barriers and achieve student success.
For all of these reasons and more, we know that the current performance of Michigan K-12 virtual programs is inconsistent, though each year more schools demonstrate they can run effective and equitable virtual programs. School and community leaders should be engaging in discussions about what learning should look like and how it will be accessed by our diverse students and families. When those conversations explore online learning, I hope that the data shared in our Effectiveness Report can lead to the dismantling of ineffective models while also contributing to the growth of successful virtual programs.
About Joseph Friedhoff, Ph.D.
Joe serves as a vice president for Michigan Virtual. He earned his Ph.D. in educational technologies from Michigan State University and is a nationally recognized researcher in the field of online and blended learning. He has taught in both face-to-face and online settings as well as at the secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels.