Over the last several years, more and more online public schools have cropped up. I hear advertisements for them frequently on the radio. They’re supposed to be “the best of both worlds” — keep your kid at home, have flexibility to teach what you want, when you want, but still have a pre-set curriculum to follow and interaction from a certified teacher. Plus, many online public schools send you materials for free, pay some of your internet bill (because it’s used for school hours), and handle all testing and notifications for you.
What’s not to love?
Why Online Public Schools Are Not a Substitute for Homeschooling
First, there are the legal aspects.
For the purposes of the law, online public school is public school. It is not homeschooling, and is not regulated the same way at all. The online public school is basically a charter school. It does things a bit differently than public schools (i.e. the flexibility to have students mostly at home), but it’s otherwise subject to the same rules and laws that the public schools are. There is compulsory attendance, testing requirements, etc.
Oh, attendance? How do you prove attendance when you’re schooling from home? Can’t you just do it on your own time, as long as you get through most of it? No.
Online public schools vary in the number of “active” hours they require. “Active” hours are the time that students are required to be in front of the computer, directly interacting with their teacher(s) or other classmates. Some are only required to be active for about 5 – 10 hours per week. Others are required to be active for several hours each day — that is, basically the same hours that they would have been in a public school classroom. It’s basically just “school at home.”
If a kid does not show up for these active hours, they are considered truant. The parents will get a phone call from the teacher, asking where they were, and they may be required to make up these hours later. If they are truant for enough hours, they can get kicked out.
Online public schools are also clear that they are in charge of your child’s education — you serve as a “coach” to make sure that your child does what the school wants you to. (K12, a popular option, actually refers to parents as “learning coaches,” and states that they must support their child’s learning for 3 – 5 hours each day.)
Online public school students are required to complete 25 hours per week of instruction. Families are required to log their hours each day to prove “attendance” — and insufficient hours can result in truancy charges. Students are also strongly discouraged from taking any family vacations or doing any traveling during school times, just like public school students — unless they will take their work with them and continue to log hours as usual.
Students are required to take all state standardized tests. These are done at a physical location, and students will be assigned a place, date, and time to take these tests. Families in my area have told me that if you opt out of standardized tests for more than 2 years in a row (which is allowed, but discouraged, by the public schools), that online public schools will kick you out.
It’s not homeschooling. Not even a little bit.
But I Thought Online Public Schools Were Flexible!
That depends on your definition of flexible.
Can your kid stay home and do work in his PJs? Yes. Can your kid do school from 10 AM to 5 PM instead of 8 – 3? Yes, usually (unless they have a “class connect” meeting with their teacher earlier). Can your kid do extra activities above and beyond regular schooling more easily, or during day time hours? Yes.
…but. You don’t have any say over the curriculum that is taught. Your child is expected to have a certain number of hours of attendance. Your child is expected to be present online frequently during regular school hours. Your child is tested often, and must take all required standardized tests.
Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s public school, done at home. Exactly that, and nothing more.
Online Public Schools are Better…Or Not?
I have a few friends who are in online public schools, and who have grown increasingly frustrated with them.
One public school (physical, regular public school) has a standard that students must read at 50 words per minute to pass third grade. Yet, my friend’s daughter, in an online public school, has been told she needs to read at 75 words per minute to pass second grade, and 92 words per minute to pass third! (An average adult reads at 120 – 130 words per minute.)
What’s even worse about this is that it only measures reading speed — not comprehension. A child could memorize words through a whole-word approach, and say them all in the required time, without any understanding of what they just read. And they would pass the test. That’s insane — of course comprehension matters more than speed! But, not in this school.
Semi-recently, a friend’s child was tested on reading speed. Despite meeting the target goal in some of the tests (they have the child read 3 short passages), the child’s average did not meet the goal, so the parent was told that their child needed to be in “remedial” reading classes — every day, online. When my friend said that wasn’t possible because they also participate in activities and events outside the home, the teacher told them that didn’t matter, the child was required to attend. Online public school comes first, and everything else comes second.
If You Want to Homeschool, Then Homeschool
A lot of parents want to homeschool, but feel very hesitant. They aren’t sure where to start. They don’t know what curriculum is best. They’re afraid they’ll end up with gaps in their child’s education or they will somehow “mess them up.”
Even parents who have moved past those fears still often want “a plan.” They want someone or something to guide them in what to do. They like the idea of a boxed curriculum that comes with instructions on what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. They want some accountability, for fear that they’ll get too busy with life, younger siblings, etc. and they won’t keep up with their child’s education.
Still, other parents worry about the cost of homeschooling. They look at pre-packaged curricula that may cost hundreds of dollars. They hear about all the activities, classes, and field trips some students do and think about the cost involved in those. They feel like there’s no way they can afford it all, and give their children a good-enough education. Parents, after all, want the best for their kids.
For many parents, online public school sounds like an attractive option. It covers the first concern — they don’t have to worry about where to start, or choosing a curriculum, or messing anything up. They are told exactly what their kids are learning and when. They don’t have to worry about the second concern because they have accountability to the school and a plan from the school. And they don’t have to worry about the third concern because it’s tuition-free and subsidies are even available for computers, internet, and materials.
I get it. I really do.
But think about what you are trading for all of that.
- Inability to choose your child’s curriculum
- Inability to skip lessons/materials that don’t work for your child’s learning style, or family’s beliefs
- Inability to opt out of standardized testing
- Inability to opt out of other regular testing
- Required online lesson times, that are not optional or flexible (the teacher is “teaching” many students and can’t change the schedule to accommodate one)
- Little flexibility in school hours/days
If you really want to homeschool, don’t be lured by the promises that online schools make. There’s a place for them, for parents who really want their kids to go to public school but who maybe have custody arrangements where kids are in two different districts at different times, or who have special medical needs, or who are being bullied and need a reprieve. But don’t kid yourself — they are public schools, so only use them if you want public school.
In future posts, we’ll explore how to get over your fears and really explore if homeschooling is for you — I know how overwhelming that can be for first-time parents!
Have you ever used an online public school? What was your experience?
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