Monday, February 10, 2014

High attrition rates at virtual schools are caused by . . .

. . . several things really. Fortunately, most of the causes can be addressed.

Last week I wrote a blog discussing the buzzwords of virtual schools and received several emails asking me my opinion regarding the attrition rates in virtual schools. As I shared with those who reached out to me, there are a myriad of reasons why families choose to leave virtual schools. The question is, "Which ones can you impact positively to reduce the attrition rate?" Those are the ones you really want to focus your attention on.

With that in mind let me offer three reasons why families are leaving virtual schools, sometimes at alarming rates.

1) Expectations not being met.

I alluded to this in my buzzword blog, and will expound upon it here. Virtual schools typically position themselves as offering programs that are individualized, personalized, and flexible for families. My contention is the definitions placed upon these words by virtual schools do not mirror the definitions that families place upon them. And, what matters the most is the what the families expect when they hear these words.

If a virtual school states that they offer an "individualized program where a student can progress at his/her own pace," as a prospective family, I expect that to mean my child can move at the pace best suited for him. Unfortunately the reality is far different.

Personalized? Surely that means specific to me. Again, the reality is quite different. And, then there is flexible. Flexible is one that can fit here where expectations are not being met, but it can also stand alone as a reason even when expectations are understood. (See #3 below)

2) Too much work

Right or wrong, like it or not, state tests are the measuring rods of public schools, including virtual public schools. Has this stymied the promise of virtual schools? That is the subject for another blog. What it has created though is a workload for families that is difficult to sustain.

Imagine being in the eighth grade, taking 5-6 courses each day with multiple quizzes and projects to turn in weekly, then having to participate in mandatory class connects with teachers, spend time each day working on test prep lessons, teacher office hours, find time for club activity, and even do some additional testing so the schools can show academic progress throughout the school year.

Exhausting yes? Now, imagine you are the parent of the eighth grader, having to help your child stay on top of all of those responsibilities, and, oh by the way, you also have a fourth grader and second grader enrolled too.

Parents leave virtual schools complaining about the rigor and the virtual schools believe it to mean the rigor of the academic content. In reality, it is the ongoing workload that is causing the problem with too much of it simply to prepare students to exceed on state tests.

3) Lack of flexibility

This is really an addendum to the first point but warrants more explanation because it too can be a stand-alone reason for families leaving - even when the expectations are clearly communicated and understood. Virtual schools are 'choice' schools meaning families choose to attend them, and they can choose to leave them.

A primary reason families decide to enroll in virtual schools is the promise of flexibility. In comparison to brick and mortar public schools, virtual school do offer more flexibility, but is it enough. Families hear flexibility and they tend to believe they can "do school when we want to," "take December off," "take a vacation when we want to," etc.

Families have the perception that virtual schooling is similar to home school, it is just free. In reality though, virtual schools mirror their brick and mortar counterparts more than home school when it comes to flexibility.

When families being to feel the pressure and burden of meeting all of the responsibilities outlined in the second point, and then realize they do not have the level of flexibility they desired, they tend to bolt.

I have not even mentioned how students/families are treated, communication issues, and training for administrators/teachers. Perhaps I will save these for a future blog.

However, a virtual school that is willing to go to the edge and cause a ruckus, can counteract these reasons for leaving. It takes courage, it takes the willingness to carve a new path, but the end result can be a virtual school that stands out from the competition - one that has students lining up to enter rather than exit.

But, you say, if I were to do something like this, how could I be sure test scores would improve? You can't. But, what is certain is that existing efforts are not doing much to improve these scores either.

So, why not try something completely unique?

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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