The New York Times article featuring K12 Inc. was as one-sided as I expected it would be. The reporter editorializes throughout and took great care to use only selective information to put the most negative slant on K12 and online schools. The reporter liberally quotes well-known critics but gives no room for leading voices supportive of education reform.
This despite hours of time spent with K12’s academic and curriculum experts and school leaders, and more email exchanges than I can count answering all her questions with facts and data. It’s disappointing, but following on the heels of similar articles from The Nation and Mother Jones, not surprising.
K12 responded to the article and provided a detailed Fact Check, but I also wanted to outline some other specific problems, and errors of omission, in the article:
NYT: “Problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program.”
FACT: Enrollment policies are set by the public school districts and the independent, nonprofit charter school boards that govern the school, not by K12. Further, those policies are largely dictated by state law, which for the most part prohibits any kind of cherry-picking or discrimination of students by public schools. Online schools are public schools and cannot deny access to eligible students based on their circumstances, academic need, or otherwise.
The enrollment process is designed to help parents make an informed choice. Parents are required to provide all documentation and paperwork required by the state, and to sign an acknowledgment of school expectations before they can enroll.
NYT: “The growth of for-profit online schools…”
FACT: This is false. There are no “for profit” online public schools. That is one of the most commonly-used phrases by opponents and it is meant to diminish the role of the independent nonprofit boards (school district and charter school boards) that govern these schools. Schools like Agora Cyber Charter School are governed by an independent Board of Trustees (Since the NYT story didn’t bother to include the views of the Agora Board, they decided to respond here).
K12 is a vendor to public schools and provides products and services under contract with the public school boards.
NYT: “A look at a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center shows that only a third of K12’s school achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation”
FACT: Set aside that the NEPC is funded by the nation’s largest teachers union in the U.S., most people agree that the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) metric is deeply flawed, if not completely broken. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned recently that, unless No Child Left Behind is addressed, as many as 80% of all U.S. schools would be unable to make AYP and therefore designated as “failing schools.” States are applying for waivers from NCLB. AYP was developed for the traditional school and district model, not for innovative online and blended programs.
Academic growth is a better measure than AYP and standardized tests. On behalf of K12’s partner schools and school districts, K12 uses a nationally-normed referenced test, from an independent provider, to assess students and measure their academic gains throughout the school year. Results are positive, demonstrating students are making gains. That is reflected in some states where academic growth is measured (The Ohio Virtual Academy, for example, was rated an Effective School by the state with an “Above” value-added rating). Unfortunately, the reporter ignored all that data.
NYT: “Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work”
FACT: This claim is false. Teachers are not pressured or coerced into giving passing grades that were not earned by students.
On this claim and many others, it appears the reporter relied heavily on a select few critics including Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union, Pennsylvania State Education Association, an organization that has actively opposed public charter schools and online schools.
NYT: “Teachers also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters.”
FACT: This is way out of context. The reporter is referring to a special ruling made by the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education on how to handle students with IEPs that were not demonstrating attendance. We gave the reporter all the information, and demonstrated how the school in Pennsylvania complied with the state policy, but she did not include that information. The online public schools comply with all state laws and regulations.
K12 is not paid for students that are disallowed, removed for truancy, or otherwise not eligible for funding.
NYT: “Some high school teachers said they were managing as many as 270 students, even though they had been told they would have 150.”
FACT: We explained to the reporter that teachers, like in traditional schools, teach separate groups of students in 4-5 sections (periods) a day. At Agora Cyber Charter School, some class loads may have been higher as new teachers were undergoing training, but that was temporary, and decreased significantly as the new teachers came on board. There are many teachers with different roles and responsibilities (general education, special education, math and reading specialists, etc.). The school’s overall student/certified teacher ratio is 25:1.
However, the larger issue on ratios is important to address. First, the teacher-student ratios, and salaries, are determined by the public school boards and are based on the school’s budget. Second, the NYT never explains the significant differences in online vs. classroom model and why a simple “apples to apples” comparison doesn’t work when comparing the two. Students in online schools often have more than just one teacher. Multiple certified teachers co-teach and provide instruction and support for students. Additionally, students receive one-on-one, face-to-face support from a learning coach. In a classroom-based model, space constraints and classroom management issues are factors. That is not the case in online schools.
K12 and its partner schools place a high value on teachers. They are the most important part of a successful school – whether traditional, online, or blended school. We treat them with respect as individuals and professionals that have made a choice to teach in an online school. Most teachers that choose online schools have had experience in traditional classrooms. They made the decision to teach online for a variety of personal and professional reasons: greater flexibility and independence, innovative instruction, and the opportunity to work closely with students and parents.
Online schools operated by K12 attract a high number of applicants for every new teacher slot available, and very few teachers choose to leave. K12 and our partner online schools provide extensive training, professional development, and career opportunities to advance in their field.
NYT: “A new grading policy states that students who do not turn in work will be given a 50 rather than a zero.”
FACT: As was explained to the reporter by officials at Agora Cyber Charter School, a “50”is still a failing grade, and if a student doesn’t do any work he/she will fail. Students are not given passing grades unless and until they are earned. The grading policy adopted by Agora is designed to help motivate students, especially the most at-risk students who have not experienced academic success in schools. There are educators who believe that with zero as a starting point, students have little hope and motivation to excel. Agora’s policy is designed to encourage students to get engaged, work hard and master content. Just like virtually everything in education, not all agree with this approach, but Agora’s grading policy is not uncommon, is used by other schools and districts in the U.S., and is supported by educators as sound and effective.
NYT: “As the company’s product has become more popular, the cost has soared…originally a home schooling package would cost about $1,000 per student per year. Parents who wanted teacher support would pay more. Today, K12 receives an average of $5,500 to $6,000 per student...”
FACT: The suggestion that K12 raised the price as the program grew is intentionally misleading. The cost for curriculum alone is far different from the total costs associated with operating a full-time public school. Ask any educator if books and materials alone equal a school.
The $1,000 figure was for core curriculum in grades K-2 alone. That figure does not include costs for teacher salaries and benefits, school administrators, guidance counselors and advisors, special education services, high school elective courses, foreign language courses, computers, systems and technology, facilities, and everything else needed to operate a full-time, highly accountable online public school.
Independent studies and state reports show the total cost to educate a student in a full-time online public school ranges from approximately $6,000 - $7,000, significantly less than the national average to educate a student in a traditional school (over $10,000 per student, according to the U.S. Census).
NYT: “A review of management contracts reveals that the company may still benefit from students who end up leaving…K12 charges ‘upfront’ fees for books and other supplies”
FACT: Again, we walked the reporter through the contracts in detail but she chose not to use the information provided. There are real costs associated with assembling and shipping curriculum, materials, computers, along with other costs to prepare a student to start school. However, if the student withdraws, the school no longer pays K12 for that student. If a student withdraws within 30 days from the course start date, the amount paid to K12 represents less than 12% of the overall online course fees.
NYT: “Officials at Elizabeth Forward School District complained that Agora had billed the district for students who were not attending.”
FACT: Agora Cyber Charter School’s truancy policy follows the state law. When a student is truant, the school removes the student in accordance with Pennsylvania school code, and the school no longer receives funding for the student. Unfortunately, what the reporter quoted is an oft repeated claim by some districts in Pennsylvania against public charter schools.
NYT: “The state audit of the Colorado Virtual Academy, which found that the state paid for students who were not attending the school, ordered the reimbursement of more than $800,000.”
FACT: The implication that this is something more than what it is -- a routine audit of school districts’ enrollment – is misleading. The COVA Board set aside funds in a reserve for reconciliation which is held by the school’s authorizing district. The school district made the payments on time and in accordance with state law. K12 was not paid for these students, nor any students that are disallowed and not eligible for funding.
As an aside, K12 is in favor of the state of Colorado reforming the way it funds schools. Currently it is one of only 13 states that funds schools based on a single count date. K12 has joined others who support Colorado moving away from a single count date to an Average Daily Membership (ADM) or Average Daily Attendance (ADA) model that will ensure districts and schools receive funding for students they serve throughout the year.
K12 has joined other organizations and education groups advocating for sensible funding reforms in other states (Virginia) to update the way students are funded, and to ensure fair and equitable funding for schools and districts that wish to offer online and blended schools.
NYT: “No single reason leads families to making the switch. The students are a broadly diverse group, ranging from entertainers and athletes in training to children with cancer, seizure disorders, peanut allergies, or behavioral problems.”
FACT: Buried in the middle of the piece, the reporter finally gets around to the main point: why parents choose online public schools and other schools of choice. I give her credit here. My only issue is that the list she provides is far too short. Children choose online schools for many reasons: victims of bullying, special needs, military families, advanced learners and students struggling in classrooms, and even students that have dropped out of school etc. A higher number of academically at-risk students (below grade level and/or under-credited) are choosing online schools after failing in traditional schools often because it is the only public school choice they have.
NYT: “In Pennsylvania, the company spent $681,000 on lobbying since 2007….K12 and its employees had also contributed nearly $500,000 to state political candidates across the country from 2004 to 2010.”
FACT: These figures pale in comparison to the massive amounts paid by powerful interest groups that have dominated education policy for years. The teachers unions in Pennsylvania alone has given over $5.9 million to candidates and political committees and spent nearly $3 million on lobbying activity since 2005. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, employs 9 full-time lobbyists.
And that’s just one state. The figures skyrocket when you total the amount of money spent by national and state unions to fund their political contributions and lobbying all across the country.
NYT: “One of the industry’s most persuasive promotional tools has been the young children who show up en masse at hearings to support online school legislation. They are mobilized by groups tied to online schools.”
FACT: Only the NYT would call young children “promotional tools” of an industry. The moms and dads who advocate for the schools they choose are hardly motivated by anything other than what is best for their children. I know since I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with many of these parents over the years, and parents that have elected to enroll their children in other schools of choice.
Parents are the most underrepresented voice in education policy. Deeply entrenched education interests dominate the halls of every state capitol. Go to any education committee hearing and it’s a Who’s Who of special interest groups (teachers unions, school boards associations, school administrators, etc.). You will hardly find parents and kids present. They simply don’t have the organizational structure or finances to compete with the powerful education groups – many of whom actively lobby against options for children and parent choice.
So yes, K12 proudly supports some organizations that help give parents a voice in education matters that directly impact their children. We respect parents and believe their voices should be heard.
None of this is to suggest there are not challenges faced by K12 and its partner schools, or that we are satisfied with results. Educators in schools across the country are constantly seeking to improve and better serve students. This is true of online schools too, especially as more academically at-risk students choose these schools after struggling in traditional schools. The demographics are changing. More needs to be done, and more is being done, to help these students succeed.
This is why K12 is investing significant resources to improve student performance and help educators serve students. K12 and its school partners are integrating blended learning, increased remedial services, and credit recovery programs, using, among other tools, newly-developed adaptive curriculum and improved instructional methods.
For some, the online school may be a long-term option, while for others success will be defined by transitioning back into the brick-and-mortar school academically back on track. Others may never choose online schools, opting instead for traditional charter schools or magnet schools. Most children will likely continue in their local school. But the most important point remains: children need options in public education and parents should be given the freedom to choose.