by David Safier
The Arizona Republic has published something like two dozen articles and sidebars about online education recently, and more keep coming. Kudos to Pat Kossan and the other reporters for their investigative work. The Washington Post has written an article and numerous blog posts. The New York Times published the most damning of all the articles I've read.
In this post, I've pulled out the important criticisms of today's online schooling environment for elementary and secondary school students. If you want to read more, the Republic has published a complete listing of its articles, and you can go to an earlier post for links to all the articles I read for this post.
Here, then, is a very short summary of some of the concerns raised by the articles.
- For Profit Education: Many of the online schools are run by for-profit corporations. The largest is K12 Inc., which runs Arizona Virtual Academy here. "K12 Inc. [is] a publicly traded company that showed a profit of $21.5 million on revenue of $384 million in fiscal 2010." The corporation's CEO, Ron Packard, got $5 million in 2011, up from $2.67 million in 2010. Administrative staff generally gets paid more than their district school equivalents.
- Questionable Recruitment Strategies: When parents call K12 Inc. for information, they get the recruitment center which is "a high-pressured sales environment aimed at one thing: enrollment." Workers, "called 'enrollment pals,' are paid bonuses based on the number of students they sign up." (That kind pay-for-recruitment strategy was recently forbidden in for-profit college recruitment.) Because more students mean more money, students who are not suited for an online program, which demands a reasonable level of student motivation and parental commitment, are recruited. At K12 Inc.'s Agora Cyber School in Pennsylvania, "The school markets itself as an option for at-risk students who are failing at their neighborhood school. Last year, about two-thirds of its students were low-income. Some of those children didn’t have an adult who could serve as the learning coach. Instead, they were left home alone and did little or no schoolwork."
- Enrollment has Skyrocketed: "The number of students in Arizona-approved online schools has more than tripled over the past six years. Nearly 36,000 students, or about 3 percent of public-school students in the state, took at least one online course in 2010-11."
- Lobbying: "From 2004 to 2010, K12 [Inc.] gave about $500,000 in direct contributions to state politicians across the country, with three-quarters going to Republicans." In Pennsylvania, "the company has spent $681,000 on lobbying since 2007. The company also has friends in high places. Charles Zogby, the state’s budget secretary, had been senior vice president of education and policy for K12.
- Advertising: ""K12 [Inc.] spent $26.5 million on advertising in 2010."
- Student-to-Teacher Ratio: K12 Inc. claims it has a 50-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, about twice the ratio for most brick-and-mortar schools. In fact, the number can go much higher. At Agora, there are "complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students."
- Poor Achievement: The average online school student often achieves at a far lower level than the average student in the same district. Part of that could be due to a lower academic level of the students, but there are strong indications the problem is with online education itself. A Stanford study "tracked students in eight virtual schools in Pennsylvania, including Agora, comparing them with similar students in regular schools. The study found that 'in every subgroup, with significant effects, cyber charter performance is lower.'”
- Pressure to Pass Students: At K12, Inc., "some teachers said they were under pressure to pass students with marginal performance and attendance." Students are kept on school rosters even if they're not logging in or completing assignments to keep the state money rolling in. To keep passing rates high, "A new grading policy states that students who do not turn in work will be given a '50' rather than a zero. Several teachers said assignments were frequently open for unlimited retakes."
- High Turnover, Low Graduation Rates: At Arizona Virtual Academy and Arizona Connections Academy, "30 percent of enrolled students leave sometime during the school year." At Colorado Virtual Academy, "the on-time graduation rate was 12 percent in 2010, compared with 72 percent statewide."
- Cheating is Easy: No one knows for sure who does a student's work or how long they spend "in class." Even mid-terms and finals are unsupervised by the schools at four of the six largest online schools in Arizona. Students complete the exams at home. Only the AIMS test needs to be taken in a proctored environment.
If you read the articles, you'll find defenses from online school supporters of their practices and some stories of students who have benefited. And certainly, for some students in certain situations, online education is valuable. But the approach is not successful for the vast majority of students. Even Ed Supe John Huppental says online education needs to be scrutinized more carefully, and many people question whether non-brick-and-mortar schools need anywhere near as much money per student as schools with buildings to maintain, transporation to furnish, etc.
Most of online education is furnished by for-profit corporations. Were it not for the profit motive, far fewer students would be enrolled, and the failure rate would be far lower. Once again, the lesson is, profits and education don't mix.