Note from Mike Bryan: David Safier has been doing a great job covering aspects of the education scene on BlogforArizona that are largely ignored by the MSM (and he's become quite a wit with his missives from the McCain "Ranch"). In his first endeavor at an investigative piece, on outsourcing at one of Arizona’s online charter schools, David has brought together an impressive amount of material and information, and this post is just his first cut at bringing this material into public view.
I hope you will take time to read his post, and stop by regularly to read what David exposes next about the state of Arizona education.
by David Safier
In 2006, Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA) began outsourcing the grading of middle school student papers to India, apparently without parents’ knowledge or consent. When some parents guessed what was happening from comments on their children’s papers, they complained, and the school promised to end the practice. But AZVA continued to send middle school papers to India for most of the school year and possibly longer. The practice was implemented at the high school during the 2007-2008 school year, and the school says it is currently considering whether to use the paper scoring service at the high school level for the current school year.
This feels wrong to me on a number of levels.
- First, AZVA is a for profit school, and I suspect it outsourced parts of its students’ educations to cut costs without regard to the impact on the students’ learning.
- Second, the school decided to leave the parents in the dark about the outsourcing, which is a serious breach of trust between school and parent.
- Third, Arizona requires fingerprints and criminal history checks of all personnel, which could mean the school is in violation of state law.
When I taught high school English, I found the best way to help students improve their writing was by learning their individual strengths and weaknesses and helping them improve paper by paper. When paper grading is farmed out to strangers like this, with a different stranger grading and commenting on each new assignment, teachers lose one of their most valuable teaching tools, and students lose the personal instruction that is so critical to writing growth. It looks like AZVA is attempting to educate on the cheap by hiring fewer teachers than it needs and outsourcing some of the work to India to take up the slack.
I spoke with Mary Gifford at the Arizona Virtual Academy about the school's practice of sending student papers to India to be scored and commented on. Toward the end of this post, I'll write about our interview.
I invite anyone who knows more about this situation – parents, AZVA staff and others - to add what you know in the comments at the end of this post. A wonderful feature of the blog format is that it allows readers to add and correct information while expanding the scope of the discussion.
About Online Charter Schools
Most people know very little about Arizona’s charter school system and even less about online charter schools. Even a knowledgeable, experienced state legislator I spoke with recently wasn’t clear on the concept of online charter schools until I explained it. So here is a brief explanation to get readers up to speed.
Charter Schools are basically public schools run outside the public school system. Once a school is granted a charter, it receives state funds for every student it enrolls. In many ways, charters run like private schools with some, but not much, oversight from the State Department of Education, though unlike private schools, the students are required to take the AIMS test.
Online Charter Schools like AZVA have no buildings and no classrooms. Their students work from home and can live anywhere in the state. (The students are not “home schooled” in the usual definition of the term, since home schoolers receive no state funds and have virtually complete freedom from state regulation.) Online students get much of their instruction and curriculum through the internet, though they may get some of it in the form of textbooks and other materials. Students’ contacts with their teachers usually happen online or over the phone. Sometimes an online school will host events, but since the students are scattered all over Arizona, that kind of contact is limited.
Arizona Virtual Academy’s Use of Offshore Education Workers
Arizona Virtual Academy is a for profit school which was based in Tucson until fairly recently when it moved to Phoenix. It is one of many online schools run by a publicly traded corporation, K12 Inc., which was started by Bill Bennett, Reagan’s Education Secretary, and others. According to K12 Inc.’s 2007 public offering, AZVA brought in $14 million in 2007, which accounted for 10% of the corporation’s income.
That’s fourteen million Arizona tax dollars.
Sometime in 2006, probably near the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year, AZVA began sending middle school students’ papers to India to have them commented on and scored by educational workers. This involved multiple interactions between each student and the assigned Indian worker for each paper – planning the paper, writing a first draft, writing a second draft, etc. The school didn’t inform parents they were doing this.
AZVA lists a teaching staff of about 80 teachers on its website, so parents had every reason to believe the local staff was responsible for their children’s educations, including grading and commenting on papers. But when parents saw the first set of papers, some of them could tell by the way the comments were worded that the graders weren’t from the U.S.
The parents complained quickly and loudly to AZVA. I can’t say with certainty what happened next. My understanding is that AZVA promised parents the school would no longer use people in India to score student papers. In fact, the practice continued at least until the spring of 2007. It may have been discontinued after that in the middle school, but it was picked up at the high school, where student papers were sent to India during the 2007-2008 school year. According to Mary Gifford at AZVA, the school is considering continuing the practice at the high school for the 2008-2009 school year.
(As an aside, I'm not questioning the education or training of the people doing the paper scoring in India since I haven’t seen their work. India is known for producing a well educated workforce, and these people are possibly competent to perform the tasks required of them. The qualifications of the people doing the outsourced work are not the issue here.)
Socratic Learning, Inc.
Through K12 Inc., Arizona Virtual Academy contracted with Socratic Learning, Inc., to handle the outsourcing of student papers to India. Socratic Learning, based in Plano, Texas, contracts with schools and offers private tutoring as well. It has a history of misrepresenting its workers as being based in the U.S., which led the New York City Public Schools to cancel its tutoring contract in August, 2006 – the same timeframe when AZVA began using Socratic Learning’s services.
Socratic Learning had a contract to tutor students in New York schools. The work was done online after school. Socratic claimed it had “a network of tutors on different college campuses,” and the tutors themselves claimed to be from Texas. In fact, all the tutors were located in Chennai, India. The NY Schools likely would not have uncovered this deception, except that they were investigating the company’s promise to parents that their children would get free laptop computers if they completed the tutoring program. According to a lengthy report from Richard J. Condon, Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District, in the process of investigating the giveaway which violated the school district’s rules, the investigator uncovered Socratic Learning’s attempt “to disguise the fact that the on-line tutors who were employed to have contact with New York City schoolchildren were located in India.”
For the NY Public Schools, the most troublesome part of the deception was that they had no idea who these tutors were. “In one of the more significant failures,” Condon wrote, “Socratic permitted its employees to interact with New York City public schoolchildren without obtaining the proper fingerprint and background checks.” The school system forbids any direct contact between students and people who have not completed a background check. Though Socratic Learning agreed that the term “direct contact” as used by the Department of Education includes internet communication, it “attempted to dispute the definition and proclaimed that Socratic should be exempt from the security procedures related to this type of interaction.”
An interesting side note: K12 Inc. filed a Letter of Intent to acquire Socratic Learning on July 3, 2007, then withdrew its Letter of Intent on September 28, 2007.
Arizona Laws and Regulations about Fingerprinting
AZVA knowingly deceived the families of children enrolled in the school by not mentioning that it sent student papers to India to be scored and commented on. It may also be true that the school compounded the deception by continuing the practice after promising parents it would stop.
But there’s another layer here, a possible violation of state law. Like New York, Arizona’s schools have regulations regarding fingerprinting and background checks.
In a 2002 document addressed to “Charter School Holders, Administrators & Staff,” Kristen Jordison, then the Executive Director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, explained the fingerprinting requirements for charter schools. It breaks the requirements into two basic categories: Charter school personnel who have teaching duties directly or indirectly, and all other charter school personnel. The personnel with teaching duties must obtain a Fingerprint Clearance Card, and the others must have a Fingerprint Criminal History Check.
In a Q&A section, Jordison explains that the law, SB 1008,
Requires all charter school persons to be fingerprinted pursuant to laws associated with fingerprinting of non-certificated personnel. Prior to employing, you [the charter school operator] are required to make documented, good faith efforts to contact previous employers of the person to obtain information and recommendations that may be relevant to the person’s fitness for employment as prescribed in A.R.S. 15-512.F.
Do the workers in India fit the legal definition of teacher or other personnel? Since they are commenting on and scoring papers which are required parts of the students’ coursework, it could be argued that they fit into the category of “teacher.” If not, they most probably qualify as other charter school personnel, even if they haven’t been hired directly by the school. If the school contracts with a cleaning service, the custodians hired by that service who work in the school would be considered school personnel and be required to have background checks. The same would apply to workers hired by Socratic Learning.
Do workers who are halfway around the world need to be fingerprinted for background checks? For the New York Public Schools, the answer was a definite yes. And anyone who knows anything about the growing problem of adults prowling the web for underage people to exploit, the answer has to be yes as well.
AZVA did not see the need to require fingerprints or background checks on the people who score student papers. It maintains that there is no direct contact between student and scorer, and the papers are scrubbed of any information that would identify the student.
My Interview with Mary Gifford of the Arizona Virtual Academy
Ms. Gifford confirmed that my basic facts are correct. AZVA used Socratic Learning to send student papers to India. She said she believed Socratic Learning was no longer in business (the company still has a website, though I did not check if it was still being used), and in any event AZVA has not used Socratic Learning since Fall, 2007. She said she did not know the name of the company AZVA used with high school students during the 2007-2008 school year. Those contracts were handled by K12 Inc., she said, which supplies the school’s curriculum.
Gifford dodged the question of whether all parents were informed that the school planned to send middle school papers to India. She made vague assertions that parents were informed verbally during town hall meetings, but she did not know of any written information that was handed to the parents about using an outside scoring service. I commented that not all parents would have attended the meetings and asked if AZVA communicated with parents about this using some form of computer-based communication sent to the parents’ homes. She said she wasn’t sure. When I asked if the school would have archived communications of that nature to the parents, she repeated that she wasn’t sure if there was electronic communication on the subject.
Gifford said only two parents complained. She said they noticed that the comments on student papers used the wrong gender pronoun to refer to the student. The school found a third student where the gender was incorrect and contacted that family. She said she did not know if parents discussed this issue online. The school has a number of avenues for parents to communicate with other parents, but she said the school doesn't look at parent-to-parent communication. I asked if any more parents complained to the school later about the use of an outside scoring service. She said she wasn’t aware of any complaints.
Gifford is well aware of the laws concerning fingerprinting and background checks I wrote about earlier. However, she said, because of the way AZVA has set up the transmission of papers, the regulations do not apply to any outside scoring service, whether it is based in India or the U.S. She said that student papers first go though an AZVA teacher, who scrubs the papers of names and other personal information, so the scorer has no idea the identity of the student. She compared it to the people hired by Arizona to score the AIMS essays. She said the AIMS scorers are not fingerprinted, and the papers are sent to scorers all over the country.
There’s More to the Story
This is a first pass over the basic information about Arizona Virtual Academy sending student papers to India. There is a great deal more to be said on this matter. As an outsider, I don’t know all the details about what the parents did and didn’t know, nor have I checked the information about the use of paper scorers with high school students. But I know I'm concerned about the for-profit school's feeling that parents can be misled about who is commenting on and scoring student work. K12 Inc, which runs the school, had the option of cutting each teacher's student load and hiring more certified staff so each teacher would be responsible for all phases of his or her students' work. Instead it chose to use less expensive labor in India. That sounds like a corporation that cares more about the bottom line than the quality of its students' educations.
If you are involved with Arizona Virtual Academy in any way and can confirm or refute anything I have written, or you have information to add, please make comments to this post.
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