Virtual High Schools Gain Credibility

After years of speculation, virtual high schools are finally on the rise. Of course, whether or not we are ready for virtual high schools is a matter of opinion. For many teens, virtual high schools are a long overdue addition in the school choice mix. If you can opt to attend a high school for the arts or a high school on the high seas, why not have the option of attending high school on the Internet? For many parents, of course, virtual high schools still seem less than ideal. After all, when most parents hear “virtual high school,” they are more likely to imagine their teen milling about the house in pajamas and watching Netflix than engaging in anything that approximates the rigor of studying in an actual classroom. For some parents, however, virtual high schools are increasingly being embraced as a viable and even preferable option, and their reasons may come as a surprise.

From Correspondence Courses to Virtual High Schools

keyboardIn the 1970s and 1980s, one could take courses (secondary and postsecondary) via the mail with the aid of a course package or textbook and in some cases, a set of audio cassettes featuring recorded lectures. By the early 1990s, distance education was beginning to evolve.  The earliest online courses simply adapted existing distance education models to the Internet. In other words, rather than receive a course kit and correspond with your teacher or professor by mail, you could now access at least some materials online and email your teacher or professor. Unfortunately, early online education models still provided few true opportunities for interchanges with other students and professors. Over the past two decades, the evolution of learning management systems has transformed both higher education and workplace training. In the process, online education has become increasingly interactive and collaborative and now is often rated as more engaging that the average face-to-face classroom. This means that as online education finally moves from a training and higher education context to the secondary and even elementary levels, it is no longer being presented as a compromise but rather as a competitive option in a crowded educational marketplace.

Help for Homeschoolers

lone-boyOne of the key reasons why virtual high schools are gaining ground is related to the growing number of homeschoolers in the United States and worldwide. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, there are currently an estimated 2.3 million home-educated students in the United States and in recent years, the number has continued to grow at a pace of 2% to 8% annually. While people frequently turn to homeschooling in order to ensure their children have a faith-based education, this is not the only reason to homeschool.



In cities such as New York and San Francisco, finding an affordable home to rent or purchase and a fantastic public school can be a challenge for many lower income and middle income families. In New York, the best schools are nearly always located in the most expensive neighborhoods. If you can’t afford to live in the right school zone, your school choices are drastically reduced. For some families, homeschooling is a way to purchase a home without making any major educational compromises. In San Francisco, the situation is different but raises similar dilemmas. In an attempt to do away with segregated schools, students are now bused around the city to different neighborhood schools. Of course, since not all parents want their children to be bused across the city nor can afford private school fees, homeschooling again becomes a default solution. The problem is that while homeschooling an elementary school student may be relatively easy, unless a parent is prepared to teach advanced calculus, chemistry, physics and AP English, at some point, additional support, either in the form of several expensive tutors or a virtual high school, is required.

Virtual High Schools Support a Global Workforce

rockThere is no question that stereotypes abound when most people think about homeschoolers. On the one hand, there is the stereotype of the hippie mom in Birkenstocks making crafts with her children in a log cabin. On the other, there is the stereotype of a fundamentalist Christian raising a brood of children on a back-to-basic homestead. Likewise, homeschooled kids are all too often depicted as eccentric loners or back-to-the-lander country bumpkins.  While virtual high schools are attracting some families within this demographic, in reality, most people opting to enroll their kids in virtual high schools simply don’t fit these stereotypes.

In a global economy, a high percentage of families are now on the move. While some families move out of necessity due to war or economic hardship, many more move across state or national borders in pursuit of work-related opportunities. In 2013, an estimated 37.7 million moved within the same state; 7.1 million moved to a different state, and 1.8 million moved overseas. (1) But anyone who has moved their children to a new city, state or country will know that the older one’s children are, the more challenging a move can be. Traditionally, children who moved often (e.g., those who are part of military or diplomatic families) attended special schools, in some cases International Baccalaureate schools, to ensure educational continuity as they moved with their families. As more children move, especially internationally, with their parents for work-related reasons, however, more families are faced with the daunting task of finding an appropriate school or schools for their children on their own. While some companies do offer financial support, depending on where one is based in the world, local schools (public or private) may simply not be an option. Again, in this case, virtual high schools offer a viable solution.  This may also explain why many U.S. virtual high schools, such as Stanford Online High School, have such a high percentage of students living abroad. Indeed, the student body at Stanford Online High School currently is based in 25 countries worldwide.

Research Supporting Virtual High Schools

cupTo date, the vast majority of studies measuring the effectiveness of online education have been carried out in a postsecondary rather than K-12 context. However, as reported in a 2010 meta-analysis published by the U.S. Department of Education, “Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction. Learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction, with an average effect size of +0.20 favoring online conditions.”(2) Since 2010, much has changed due to a drastic rise in the number of virtual high schools and due to the changing scope of these schools. Indeed, as social media platforms have transformed everyday communications, learning management systems have evolved in turn. In addition, for a new generation of high school age students who have grown up with social media, interacting with classmates online is now as “natural” as interacting with peers in person.  One of the most promising discoveries, however, is a growing body of evidence-based research that suggests virtual high schools may be especially effective in meeting the needs of student populations that have traditionally been at-risk of dropping out, including LGBT students, visible minority students and students with learning disabilities.

Why Virtual High Schools are Likely Not a Fleeting Educational Experiment

Some educational experiments are fleeting. For a brief period of time in the 1970s, hippie educators decided that the future was the “open classroom.” In some progressive districts, new schools were built without walls and old schools had walls removed to create busy and chaotic learning corridors where students could co-mingle across ages and grade levels and teachers could easily collaborate. Needless to say, the open classroom turned out to be a largely failed experiment. Other experiments, however, like kindergartens, a 19th-century German invention, have had great lasting power. While only time will tell if virtual high schools are here to stay, given the growing dominance of online and blended learning models at the college and university levels, it seems likely that more and more credible virtual high schools will appear over the coming decade.

Contributor: Cait Etherington, Dec. 24, 2016

1. Pew Research Center, “Americans on the Move,”

2. Barbara Means, et al. “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies,” U.S. Department of Education (September 2010).

Copyright 2019 All Rights Reserved