January 5, 2016

Online learning activity in public schools and districts

(The following is excerpted and slightly adapted from Keeping Pace 2015; see previous related posts here and here)

This and subsequent blog posts will look at online learning and digital activity across the various U.S. K–12 education sectors, including public schools and districts, charter schools, private schools, university schools serving K–12 students, and homeschool. These are the organizations that are the firsthand educators, directly responsible for students’ learning and outcomes in our education system. Our goal is to increasingly understand how and to what extent they are delivering online and digital learning within these sectors.

We start with a review of the non-charter public school sector because the vast majority of students in the U.S. attend these schools. Public schools and districts have been using a wide variety of digital content and instructional software for many years. We have seen many examples of innovative and effective use of these tools within instructional programs from the early grades through high school, from core subjects, to advanced learning, to credit recovery.

Of the nearly 55 million K–12 students in the United States, about 47 million (85%) attend non-charter public schools. About 13,500 school districts exist across the country, but the distribution of district size is characterized by a long tail of very small districts.

  • The 50% of districts ranging in size between 1,000 and 25,000 students educate 60% of all students.
  • The largest 2% of districts (those that serve more than 25,000 students) educate 35% of all students.
  • Districts of under 1,000 students account for 47% of the total number of districts, but only 5.5% of all students; most of these serve rural communities.
  • Three states are home to 45 of the 100 largest districts: California, Florida, and Texas. These larger districts tend to have larger schools, more minority students, and 56% of their students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals (compared to 48% of all public schools in 2013).

Based on observation and information from many sources, we believe that most districts are using some form of digital learning, which may range all the way from full-time online programs, to supplemental online courses, online courses that include some degree of face-to-face instruction, digital learning enhancements to classroom instruction, and skills software used in math, English Language Arts (ELA), and other classes.

With the development of online courses to supplement student learning in the late 1990’s, national and state-level suppliers—vendors, state virtual schools, regional service agencies, and others—began providing schools and districts with online courses and technology. Schools had long been using media resources and technology in the classroom, but online learning emerged as a solution to meet specific school challenges and student needs, including providing:

  • Alternatives for scheduling conflicts
  • Highly qualified teachers in subjects where teachers were not available, particularly Advanced Placement
  • Access to hard to find courses, especially in rural or inner-city schools
  • Electives and other accelerated options for college bound students
  • Flexibility for athletes, homebound students, those in the arts, dropouts, and pregnant or incarcerated students
  • Credit recovery programs for at-risk students
  • Solutions for small class sizes and emergency shortfalls in teachers.

Public school students’ motivation for taking online courses bear out many of these school goals. Based on a national student survey, 47% of students in grades 9–12 pursue online learning to access courses not offered at the school, and 43% choose to take courses online to be able to work at their own pace. Forty-two percent of students in grades 6–8 cited the desire for extra help as the major reason for choosing an online course.

Our next post will look at examples from several states and districts to further explore these numbers.

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