Friday, September 29, 2023

With mixed results, Iowa virtual school looks to expand


As part of a three-year pilot program, hundreds of Iowa’s K-12 students are enrolled in one of two online-only schools, and test scores—the ultimate metric substituted today for school quality—are mixed after two years, the Sioux City Journal reports.

The schools are online-only, and students are required to work with a caretaker in the home, which is usually a parent who can stay at home, while they are working with a certified teacher over the Internet. A teacher provides lessons, asks them questions, and can offer one-on-one instruction. Some teachers say they’re working on increasing the peer-to-peer communication, but teacher-to-student connections work well.

“I really feel like there’s a good relationship between the teachers and the students, even one that’s stronger than what you’d see in a brick-and-mortar setting, because they are able to work directly with me,” the newest teacher at the school was quoted as saying. “Unfortunately, there’s not always the same connection between peers, but that’s something we really work to build.”

The Iowa Connections Academy in Anita, which is run by Pearson, turned in test scores that were higher, on average, than the whole state, while the Iowa Virtual Academy, run by Virginia-based K12 Inc., came in below the state’s averages, according to a report issued by the Iowa Department of Education late last month.

On the question of making connections with their peers, about half the K-3 virtual school students said they worked in groups with other students during the school day; about three in 10 students in fourth through 12th grade said that. The survey did not ask students about socialization, self-definition, or any of the important goals of peer-to-peer collaboration.

The Iowa Connections Academy is hoping to recruit a few more students for next year and is conducting a sort of recruiting drive on its home page. Among the testimonials provided by students are “My favorite thing about IACA is I don’t have to get up really early in the morning to eat breakfast” and “What I like most about IACA is that it allows me to balance academics with the pursuit of my dreams in gymnastics.”

The virtual schools are part of a movement in education known as “school choice.” They give parents another option, but even the principal at the Iowa Connections Academy acknowledges that virtual schools aren’t for everyone.

“We know that for a student to attend an online model, there has to be a learning coach, a caretaker, a parent that’s available at home, especially at those elementary ages,” the Journal quoted Principal James Brauer as saying about his decision to send his own children to brick-and-mortar schools. “Because of that and because we still want to be great parents, but we also have professional goals, I don’t know if we could.”

I also believe online-only schools, or cyber charters, can serve a purpose for a few students: those whose individual circumstances and needs are better met by an online-only school than by the brick-and-mortar school.

Unfortunately, that’s not who signs up, and it’s not part of the marketing materials for the Iowa Connections Academy. The companies that run virtual schools wouldn’t make enough money if their only students were the ones who were able to use an online-only model to their advantage or who needed a cyber charter to fill a gap in their education.

Instead, virtual schools tend to target, as exemplified in the Iowa Connections Academy recruitment drive, kids who want to pursue their own muse or don’t want to get out of bed to go take a stupid test. I think these kids would be better served by a brick-and-mortar school, and they may return after a year or so at the online-only school. They’ll be behind, but their lack of progress won’t reflect on the Iowa Connections Academy but on the public school to which they return.

Related stories

National Education Policy Center report on K12 (2012)
Students at K12 Inc, the nation’s largest virtual school company, are falling further behind in reading and math scores than students in brick-and-mortar schools. These virtual school students are also less likely to remain at their schools for the full year, and the schools have low graduation rates. “Our in-depth look into K12 Inc raises enormous red flags,” said NEPC Director Kevin Welner.

Newark K12 contract shows influence of for-profits in our schools (
“A preliminary report by the Florida Education Department’s inspector general found the company asked employees to teach subjects not covered by their certification and inflated its enrollment [so they would get paid more money]. An online charter school in Colorado recently severed its relationship with the company after state auditors found K12 Inc overcharged the state for students whose enrollment could not be verified.”

NPR: Va. lawsuit accuses K12 of misleading investors
Among the allegations are that K12 relies upon churn to produce high revenues and that some teachers have a class size of 400 students.

Big IL districts skeptical about online charter proposal
Carol Higgins, a special-education teacher at Lincoln Junior High School in Naperville, said children need contact: “The human element of Naperville schools cannot be replaced with an online program. Every child needs to have someone, in the morning, say, ‘Hey! Good morning. How are you doing?’ You can’t get that in some online program.”

IL imposes 1-year moratorium on virtual charter schools

Students learn less in virtual charter schools (

Temple Univ researcher: Virtual schools steal & send tax dollars out of state

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


  1. As a parent with 2 children enrolled in their 2nd year at Iowa Connections Academy (IACA) I’d like to provide you with some facts: My son’s GPA at his brick and mortar public school prior to enrolling in IACA was 1.30. His GPA improved to 2.95 during his first year at IACA and is currently at 2.81 so far in this school year.

    He also made Honor Roll last year for the first time ever. He will graduate from IACA in the 2014-2015 school year. I used to worry that he’d never graduate. Thanks to his success at IACA I no longer worry about that.

    My visually impaired daughter was enrolled in a brick and mortar public school that failed to meet her needs in almost every aspect. They tried to tell me she was “slow” when I knew for a fact she was advanced and they let her fall a year behind in Math prior to me pulling her out of that school in the 4th grade to homeschool her instead. I had her caught up to her grade level in Math prior to her enrolling in the 5th grade at IACA. She is now in the 6th grade at IACA.

    We just received the results of her Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED) and she scored in the 99th percentile for Reading with a National Grade Equivalency (NGE) of 13+, in the 91st percentile for Math with a NGE of a 10th grader and in the 80th percentile in Science with a NGE of a 9th grader in their 1st month of school. Again, she is in 6th grade this year and is visually impaired. Pretty damn impressive! She has been provided with Gifted and Talented Language Arts, Literature Study and Science classes at IACA. The Gifted and Talented coordinator at IACA just meet with her last week to do a Gifted Multidisciplinary Evaluation on her. While I do not have the results yet I’d imagine that she is probably going to qualify for G/T Math now as well.

    Deciding to enroll my children in IACA is one of the very best decisions I’ve ever made and they love it. They have both found some incredible success there. My children have worked very hard for what they have achieved at IACA and your comments/conclusions are not only inaccurate but insulting. My children are receiving a FAR SUPERIOR EDUCATION at IACA and both will tell you that IACA’s curriculum is much more challenging than anything they ever had to do in our local public school district.

    That is what is important to me and my children. I couldn’t care less where the federal tax dollars go. Please don’t feign concern for these students and make outrageous and false claims about them and their school. It’s not fair to them and they deserve to have this chance for a better education.

  2. Ms Edwards,

    Thank you very much for your comments. Your children are perfect examples of why I think virtual schools have a huge role to play in any state’s landscape. It would be a big mistake to wipe them out just because some corporations, like K12, as I documented in my report, have acted unethically and have shown no ability to provide responsible management of the funds they receive.

    Pearson is a much more reputable company than K12, as IACA shows. Sure, they’ve made some mistakes and have paid for them, but over all, I don’t want to see places like IACA (and similar operations in other states) go down just because K12 engages in business practices that are harmful to children.

    My concern is not feigned, by the way, and I wish you the best going forward. Hopefully, the “pilot” in Iowa will continue into permanence, at least at IACA. This could be helped by better marketing drives on IACA’s part, which aren’t directed very well to kids who can use the online school environment to their advantage. That being said, I also hope the programs at IACA teach public school districts something about individualizing instruction for all their students.

  3. Thank you so much for your reply and best wishes! I admittedly know little to nothing about the K12 corporation or their program other than there is 1 operating in Iowa. When I first started looking for an alternative IACA had just become available for the first time. I know I started researching both schools and quickly dismissed the K12 one in favor of IACA although I can’t remember specifically why now. You’ve peaked my curiosity so I’ll have to do some research now to educate myself on K12. Thanks again!

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