Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

December 13, 2011

On-Line Charters Get Failing Grade

Filed under: Charter Schools,Virtual Schooling — millerlf @ 11:06 am

Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools

By STEPHANIE SAUL  Published: December 12, 2011 NYTimes

Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.

Agora is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States.

The pupils work from their homes, in some cases hundreds of miles from their teachers. There is no cafeteria, no gym and no playground. Teachers communicate with students by phone or in simulated classrooms on the Web. But while the notion of an online school evokes cutting-edge methods, much of the work is completed the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper while seated at a desk.

Kids mean money. Agora is expecting income of $72 million this school year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total anticipated revenues of K12, the biggest player in the online-school business. The second-largest, Connections Education, with revenues estimated at $190 million, was bought this year by the education and publishing giant Pearson for $400 million.

The business taps into a formidable coalition of private groups and officials promoting nontraditional forms of public education. The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.

The New York Times has spent several months examining this idea, focusing on K12 Inc. A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.

Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.

Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal.

Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews. While teachers do not have the burden of a full day of classes, they field questions from families, monitor students’ progress and review and grade schoolwork. Complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students — have prompted a unionization battle at Agora, which has offices in Wayne, Pa.

(more…)

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December 4, 2011

Gail Collins on Virtual Education

Filed under: Virtual Schooling — millerlf @ 1:30 pm

Virtually Educated

By   Published: December 2, 2011 NYTimes

I always thought that the only kids getting their entire public schooling online were in the hospital, living in the Alaskan tundra, or pursuing a career as a singing orphan in the road company of “Annie.” Not so. There are now around 250,000 cyberschool students in kindergarten through high school and the number is growing fast.

If I had managed to envision a lot of students going to school online, I’d have imagined them being home-schooled by a diligent middle-class parent. But, lately, the target seems to be low-income families. Andy Berke, a state senator in Chattanooga, Tenn., says that when an educational company named K12 Inc. held a meeting to publicize its online taxpayer-funded academy, it chose “one of the poorest neighborhoods” in his district. In Pennsylvania, where K12 runs a statewide online charter school called Agora, you can go to the Web site and watch Head of School Sharon Williams explain about “online learning as an alternative to a violent in-school experience.”

O.K., here is my first question: Does full-time online learning really work for disadvantaged kids who may be alone at home all day?

Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado did a review of all the information available on this and, in fact, on the entire question of how well full-time online learning works for kids in elementary through high school. The answer was: nobody knows.

“The most detailed study is a couple of blog entries,” he said.

Jim Shelton, an official at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, said that he had not seen much rigorous research on the subject, either: “In fact, none that I am aware of.”

Yet we are zooming forward as fast as new students can be recruited. I cannot help but suspect part of the impetus for this speedy transition is the profit motive.

K12 Inc. is a big private online education business. It was founded by a former Goldman Sachs banker and by William Bennett, the Republican writer and talk-show host, with an infusion of cash from the former disgraced junk-bond king Mike Milken. Its teachers generally work from their homes, communicating with their students by e-mail or phone. (At one point in Arizona, essays of students attending an online academy run by K12 were outsourced to India for correction. K12 says the program was a pilot and was discontinued.)

The company’s opponents in Tennessee are particularly bitter about the fact that when K12 came in, the state’s own online educational program went out. “It won numerous awards, the children were successful, and last session they made a decision to junk it, because K12 Inc. made a decision to lobby the Legislature to pass the Virtual School Act,” said Berke.

Representative Harry Brooks, the chief sponsor of the Virtual Public Schools Act, does not see it that way at all. A federal grant for the program ran out, he said, and “it wound up being difficult in reference to funding.” His own bill, Brooks added, just gives local school districts the authority to start their own online education.

Anyway, here is what happened as soon as the law went into effect: K12 made an arrangement with the rural Union County school district, which became the home of the new Tennessee Virtual Academy. Any Tennessee parent can pull her child out of the local system and enroll him in Union and the academy.

There are now about 2,000 students in the virtual school, which is just about the same number of people who reside in Maynardville, the Union County seat. The district gets a small cut of the $5,387 in state aid that attaches to each student, while K12 gets the rest. Yet another thing we don’t really know is how much it costs K12 to run the academy, although we do know company profits have been soaring.

The school day tends to be shorter, thus providing more free time for students to entertain themselves. “Often times these schools, as they grow, develop partnerships with YMCAs, community colleges and other centers that allow schools to be able to have access to facilities,” said a spokesman for K12. He admitted that most of the Tennessee students were not likely to be dropping in on Maynardville.

Also read:

Room For Debate: Can Young Students Learn From Online Classes?

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