Teaching in rural schools and educating rural students presents challenges unique to that locale. It is well known that population demographics are shifting and have been for some time, resulting in a migration out of rural areas. Families are drawn to suburbs, towns, and cities and take with them the necessary tax base to operate schools and provide educational services. Vander Ark, in a 2013 article on Getting Smart, cites that some 150,000 schools were closed in the last century. Vander Ark is not alone in his assessment of the challenges rural schools face; Nordine, writing for the Virtual School Leadership Alliance (VSLA), cites declining enrollments, high socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, high transportation costs, a lack of computer and internet access in homes, low teacher pay, and high teacher turnover as challenges faced by rural schools. These challenges, according to Nordine, start a cycle of low student achievement, perceptions of poor educational quality, and lack of confidence and trust in rural schools evidenced by failed referendums or bonds.
The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, in Michigan’s K-12 Virtual Learning Effectiveness Report released in 2014, found that students in rural locales tended to perform on par with students from other locales in their online courses. Sixty-three percent of rural enrollments reached “completed/passed” status compared to 59% in towns, 63% in suburbs, and 64% in cities. The author of the report is careful to caution, however, that it is not simply a matter of rural students being better suited for online learning; rather, it is likely that the differences in performance can be attributed to local supports available to the student and, more specifically, the students’ reasons for taking the online course. This is an important distinction because the Effectiveness Report also found that students taking online courses to recover lost credits perform poorly compared to students taking the course as their first attempt at the credits. As mentioned previously, supplemental online learning offers rural students more learning options, and it seems plausible that rural students are taking advantage of the increased options made available by online learning and not strictly for credit recovery purposes.
With this in mind, researchers at MVLRI, in conjunction with our partners at the VSLA wanted to investigate both the enrollment and pass rates of not only rural students, but students in all locales, and see how well students performed across locales. While MVLRI reports annually on enrollment and completion/pass-rate trends both within the Michigan Virtual School and statewide, we wanted to explore this nationally with help from our colleagues at the VSLA. Seven case studies from seven virtual schools across the United States are presented, exploring enrollment and completion/pass-rate trends. The report concludes with a discussion of the trends apparent across the virtual schools presented in this study.
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