Key Issues with American Public Schools: Are Virtual Classrooms the Solution?

Education & Technology

Since opening its first free public school in 1634, the American public education system is one of the country’s oldest and most dynamic institutions. The noble cause of providing universal education also comes with a long list of challenges. This article highlights some of the key issues within the American public education system, and how today’s technology might offer some unique solutions.

Unequal access to learning opportunities

The first issue plaguing the US public school system is unequal access to learning opportunities. American public schools are funded in large part by property taxes, and so schools in wealthy neighborhoods often flourish, enjoying the best teachers, state-of-the-art equipment, and uncrowded classrooms, while schools in less affluent areas consistently suffer due to lack of funds.

Though there is no absolute relation between funding and great results, year after year, wealthy school districts excel in standardized testing while urban and rural school districts frequently fail to meet achievement targets. Jay Greene, author of “Education Myths,” points out that schools need infrastructure, good teachers, resources, libraries, play grounds, and so much more to offer a solid learning environment. All of these factors require money.

Economic Mobility in AmericaUltimately, these funding differences stack the deck against students from poorer neighborhoods, many of whom are already struggling on a variety of non-academic levels. Unfortunately, many  may never manage to bridge the gap. Despite (or perhaps because of) constant debate on Capitol Hill, the education system in America often seems to reinforce the socioeconomic gap between the rich and poor, rather than addressing it.


Chart courtesy The Economic Mobility Project, from the report “Economic Mobility in America: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?”

Fareed Zakharia, a journalist and author specializing in international relations, trade, and American foreign policy, states that:

Education is the engine of mobility. And for all its current troubles, many countries in Europe – especially in northern Europe – have done a much better job providing high quality public education [than the United States], particularly for those who are not rich or upper middle class.”

There are no simple solutions to such complex problems. However, virtual classrooms and virtual schools are less dependent on local and regional political policies, structured funding, or physical location. No matter how wealthy or poor a student’s background, if they can access the Internet (which in some cases is a big “if”), they can access and benefit from quality online educational resources, and use these to bridge the gap toward better educational outcomes and improved opportunities.

As with all things educational, however, there are no silver bullets. Student motivation and academic support (whether from school staff, family, or the larger community) are vital to success, even as online learning helps level the playing field for students of all backgrounds.

Teaching to the test

Standardized testing systems and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act have led to a focus on getting all students to pass specific tests. While the system is touted as “student-centric,” in truth it creates a stressful learning environment, derailing the learning process at all levels.

One result of these policies is that gifted students aren’t pushed beyond what’s required to pass the test. According to the National Association for Gifted Children, there are approximately 3 million academically gifted children in the US in grades K-12 (approximately 6% of the student population). Many public schools are no longer adequately equipped to deal with gifted students, which can lead to everything from discipline issues (due to boredom), to simply not helping them live up to their potential.

On the other hand, students with special needs (or even those who learn best at a slower pace or with non-traditional approaches) feel the pressure to pass high stakes exams, losing the opportunity to genuinely learn. Special education teachers tell all too frequent stories of students being pushed out of districts or denied school choice because they will potentially lower average test scores.

Virtual classrooms, on the other hand, allow a limited teaching staff to provide differentiated instruction to all learners, tailoring their classes and dividing their time more effectively. While we talk about students with disabilities as having “special needs,” it’s important to recognize that all students have special, individual educational needs, whether they are gifted, average, struggling, or disabled.

NCLB has been an implementation disaster, but the original intent was quite positive: teach to a core set of standards and differentiate instruction such that all students can be successful. Online instructional environments and hybrid approaches to teaching and learning can help schools and students realize the actual vision of No Child Left Behind, as well as provide tools for gifted students to stretch and excel. The test scores (the measurable, quantifiable achievement) will follow naturally.

Large class sizes

Huge class sizes is another issue affecting learning outcomes in public schools. Teachers with overloaded classes become mere classroom managers, finding it difficult to deliver quality education. They may not even have enough materials, or, in fact, enough desks for all of their students.

Virtual classrooms make large classes more manageable. They also give institutions with limited physical space and/or teaching staff another way to break classes into smaller sizes. Using virtual materials means always having enough to go around, as well. No one has ever run out of PDFs or recorded lessons, but the vast majority of teachers and administrators have been forced to shuffle books, photocopy book pages, and make substantial compromises in student scheduling to deal with overcrowded classes. Now, more than ever, with schools facing the funding cliff as stimulus dollars dry up, teacher layoffs and school closures will continue to drive class sizes upwards, making the idea of virtual classrooms, even in limited or hybrid settings, quite attractive.

Using a virtual classroom, or a hybrid virtual and face-to-face solution, also adds options for letting different levels of learners work at their own pace. Regardless of class size, a teacher can take on the role of mentor and guide, rather than the “sage on the stage” delivering the same materials in the same way to 32 students. When education is outcome-driven rather than test-driven, students can learn at their own pace and seek out materials and experiences under the guidance of an educator there to help them achieve desired outcomes. Suddenly, project-based and collaborative learning models that simply aren’t possible in large classes become quite feasible, improving engagement, retention, and ultimately, achievement

Students with medical problems, who otherwise might slip through the cracks in an overcrowded school, have also found virtual classrooms to be helpful. A shining example is Carylanne Joubert, a diabetic who at the age of 14 finds the Florida Virtual School so convenient and motivating that she’s already studying the 11th grade curriculum, despite challenges that would make traditional, classroom-based learning very difficult for her. The same is true for students whose social or emotional difficulties in a loud, overcrowded classroom would overwhelm their ability to learn, no matter how gifted they might actually be.

Limited course offerings

Students in small, rural, or outlying school districts rarely have access to the extensive course offerings available to students in urban and suburban areas. The smaller the school, the less learners have the option to study specialized topics, off-beat subjects, or any but the most common of foreign languages. All of the school’s limited resources must necessarily focus on delivering a basic, core education.

Virtual classrooms open a whole world of languages and other topics that would never be available otherwise in these rural schools (or, for that matter, even urban schools without the funding to attract teachers capable of teaching Arabic, European history, or Java). Students accessing virtual learning options, however, can study any subject or specialty as long as they can find an instructor.

Virtual education boom hits the states” mentions an interesting anecdote, reinforcing the power of virtual classrooms:

A few years ago, when he was governor of West Virginia, Bob Wise attended a graduation ceremony at Pickens High School in Randolph County, a tiny school on top of a mountain where the graduating class consisted of only two students. As he was leaving, he asked the principal how the school was able to attract foreign language teachers.

“He laughed and said, ‘We have one of the best Spanish instructors in the country.’ And I said, ‘How could that be possible here on this mountain?’ And he pointed to a satellite dish and he said, ‘she comes in every day at 10 o’clock from San Antonio, Texas.’ ”

“That’s when I learned the power of distance learning,” says Wise, now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Rural and poor schools, in particular, now have access to specialized teachers within their budget and reach.
More state schools are seen blending their school programs with virtual learning, as well as sharing resources through virtual classrooms. When one county in rural Alabama has an outstanding math teacher capable of preparing students for AP calculus, another may have a great journalism instructor. All it takes is a bit of bandwidth and a couple of webcams to double the reach of these instructors and ensure that students in both districts can take journalism and AP calculus.

Violence and disciplinary issues

National Center for Education StatisticsAccording to a report published by the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2007–08 school year, 85 percent of public schools recorded one or more reportable crimes at school (violent deaths, non-fatal student and teacher victimization, fights, carrying weapons and illegal substances, etc.), amounting to an estimated 2 million crimes right where our students should be safest. Rates of violence, discrimination, and bullying are on the rise, despite legislative efforts to keep them in check.

Photo: Gustavo Martinez Contreras

While virtual education is hardly the answer to violence and victimization in schools, it does provide a safe and secure learning environment for parents and students seeking an alternative. It is one part of a much larger solution, but few educators will deny that learning is badly hampered in an environment rife with serious disciplinary issues and fear.

Virtual classrooms offer a medium for education where students aren’t physically packed in the same space. Classroom violence isn’t possible, and most distractions boil down to issues around learners surfing the Internet or checking Facebook accounts. The ability for the instructor to mute or block problem students further reduces chances for disruption.

Politics and declining institutional trust

America’s public school system is currently under siege by politics, perhaps more so now than ever before. Funding issues, fights for local control, and collective bargaining disputes overshadow the real business of our schools: educating students. Even a cursory look at the fights over teacher salaries based on merit rather than seniority suggests the gridlock that keeps too many school systems from moving forward and focusing on education. Add to this the requirements created by a system obsessed more with standardized tests than real-world student outcomes, and it isn’t hard to see why so many of our best teachers have come to see their profession as a mere job instead of a calling.

Virtual classrooms offer a chance for a fresh start. Online educational methodology allows teachers to focus on teaching, making everything else secondary, and the new platform offers a motivating challenge for good teachers and keen learners.

In conclusion

The World Economic Forum ranks America 48th in math and science education. On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of the 34 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and America is in the middle ranking for science and reading. 70 percent of American eighth graders are not proficient in reading, and some 1.3 million American high school students drop out every year.

These statistics paint a grim picture. Today, virtual teaching and learning is slowly being blended into American public schools, providing a powerful alternative for students and parents looking for “something different”. As the virtual classroom matures and gains traction, we can let students choose the teaching methodology they’re comfortable with, encourage deep, self-paced learning, and most importantly, give students a safe environment to learn when circumstances make traditional classrooms a place of discomfort rather than learning.

Already, more than 40% of high school and middle school students have expressed interest in taking an online course. If they want to try another way to learn, maybe it’s time we let them.

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