Would You Send Your Seven-Year-Old to an Online Elementary School?

In recent years there’s been an uptick in the number of elementary and high school students who are taking classes online, but is it right for your child?

(Photo: Daniel Allen/Getty Images)

Apr 10, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Kyra Ragsdale spends hours researching online elementary schools for her first grader.

Her son, who is only seven, already possesses a keen interest in science, but he doesn’t learn much about the subject in class, as science isn’t taught in-depth until fourth grade at his Arkansas elementary school. As a result, he becomes frustrated and bored by a curriculum that doesn’t challenge him and doesn’t include subjects he wants to learn. Ragsdale sees an online elementary school as a viable opportunity.

“What I am hoping to gain is a way for my son to remain interested and engaged in learning,” she says. “I have had to comfort my son because they don’t learn any science in school yet, not until fourth grade. Ninety percent of their time is spent on language, reading, and writing, which he is already several grade levels ahead in.”

For years, adults have earned undergraduate and graduate degrees online, but in recent years, there’s been an uptick in the number of elementary and high school students who are taking classes online. According to the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), 315,000 kindergarten-through-12th-grade students are enrolled in online schools, compared with about 50,000 students 10 years ago.

“The reasons for enrolling in an online school depend on each student,” Allison Powell, vice president for new learning models for iNACOL, says. “They could have started in home schooling and now want a teacher. Some students travel a lot. Others have been physically bullied and are afraid to go to school. Sometimes, students need to have that freedom to work at their own pace.”

According to iNACOL, 31 states and Washington, D.C., have statewide full-time online schools. Each state funds online schools differently, and many of them are considered spin-offs of charter schools. Teachers are state certified, and curriculum is created based on state standards.

Online elementary schools have been slower to grow because of their integrated curricula. Each subject closely ties to another, unlike in secondary school—an eighth-grade civics class or a high school physics class can be taught as stand-alone courses.

But online elementary school is changing and growing, says Powell.

“There is better curriculum for younger grades being developed,” she says. “Based on the talk on the field—we don’t have hard numbers on this—elementary online education is growing.”

Online elementary schools are similar to brick-and-mortar schools, and the curriculum isn’t entirely virtual. Students write papers, read books, and even create science projects. These schools are different from home schooling in that in a home-school environment, parents are the teachers. In an online school, students submit work to teachers, but parents must have a hands-on role to make sure their child is making significant progress. As with a traditional school, parents will have to make sure there is proper follow-through and act like a “teaching coach” to guide the student through assignments and projects.

“The younger the students, the more support the parent or an adult will have to give,” Powell says. “You aren’t going to sit a kindergartner in front of the computer and expect them to learn. They don’t have that motivation and responsibility to do it on their own.”

This type of educational coaching doesn’t bother Ragsdale if it means her son gets the education he needs. “I don’t have any problem with helping my son with his homework,” she says. “I am already filling our evenings with supplemental learning and science experiments so that he may stay interested.”

Jessica Parnell, a home-education evaluator and advocate and the president of Bridgeway Academy, a home-school curriculum provider, has spent the last 20 years studying the online education movement, including the pros and cons of teaching children at home.

“The pros of elementary education online are that it offers a variety of ways to learn. Children can learn by reading text, listening to instructors, watching video, interacting with technology, and using creative problem solving through Web challenges and scavenger hunts,” she says.

Parnell warns that the biggest con of online education is when parents don’t realize they must be interactive.

A potential concern for some parents could be the isolation and lack of social interaction that comes with learning online. Another downside of an online school is that students may not have a strong relationship or a lasting bond with their teacher. But as more schools are launched, these problems are being addressed. Many online schools often link students and teachers for a field trip or social activities. Kids meet other students and get to know their teachers.

For a student like Ragsdale’s son, a school could offer a tailored curriculum to fit his academic needs. For example, Powell says that students can be in third grade, have a reading level of a sixth grader, and have a math level of a first grader. Unlike a traditional education, an online school could offer a specialized curriculum plan for that student to meet individual needs.

Parnell adds that digital learning provides “immediate feedback and assessments that allow families and instructors to identify a child’s strengths quickly and accurately. This also gives students the opportunity to pursue a customized learning path that will promote their strengths while filling in the gaps and addressing their weaknesses. In turn, parents and instructors will know if students are grasping concepts early on in their education and can adjust each child’s curriculum accordingly.”

But online schools are far from perfect.

A 2012 study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado shows that students at K12 Inc., the nation’s largest virtual school company, fell further behind in reading and math scores than students in brick-and-mortar schools. The study also notes that students who attend these schools are less likely to remain there for the full year, and graduation rates are low. Another problem is that it’s almost impossible for students to be enrolled in an online school if both parents work outside the home.

For Ragsdale, a stay-at-home mom, the positives outweigh the negatives—at least for now, and she will continue to search for an online option for the next school year.

“My priority is to keep my son interested and engaged,” she says. “Right now I am having to do that around his school hours. If I could make that the focus of the day, make things hands-on and interesting and cater things to whatever his current focus is, maybe he won’t dread the idea of school and he will continue to want to learn.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakeParts parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.