New York Times vs. virtual schools

Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street Than in Classrooms, writes the New York Times, singling out K12, a for-profit that started by providing curriculum to homeschoolers and now runs charter schools (and works with school districts).

Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online.

K12 recruiters “fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students, company staffers tell the Times.

If a charter screened out high-risk students, surely the Times would be indignant.

Only a third of K12’s schools achieve “adequate yearly progress,” according to a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center, the story adds.

Well, they do take high-risk students.

The story is part of “a series of hit pieces” targeting innovative private companies, charges Tom Vander Ark. Meanwhile, as the Times “maliciously savages sector leaders like K12 and Carnegie Learning, they are out marketing their own ‘state of the art learning management system’ called Epsilen,” he writes.

Vander Ark goes on to detail what’s wrong with the story.

Reporting on for-profit education often generates “more hysteria than analysis,”writes Rick Hess, who calls the Times story a “selectively sourced attack.”

Sure, there are valid and sensible concerns about the role of for-profits in schooling. But aggressively recruiting clients and cutting corners to make a buck is the flip side of the things that for-profits are uniquely positioned to do well–which is to squeeze cost structures, find new efficiencies, and rapidly scale.

We need performance pay for online learning companies, writes Mike Petrillii, who sees a biased story that “landed a punch” on the issue of perverse incentives.

Clearly K12, and its well-paid CEO, Ron Packard, face strong incentives to boost enrollment at their schools. Unfortunately, states haven’t figured out a way to create similar incentives around quality. And that needs to change.

Fordham’s Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning includes Rick Hess on quality control, Paul Hill on funding and Bryan and Emily Hassel on teachers.  An upcoming analysis will examine “what high-quality fulltime online learning really costs.”

Virtual schooling is new and there are plenty of bugs to be worked out, including how much funding is fair, how to measure quality, how many students an online teacher-coach can handle and so forth.


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  1. You write, “If a charter screened out high-risk students, surely the Times would be indignant.”

    That’s not the issue, though. The issue is that the online schools at issue do not invest in the support or services necessary to help high-risk students succeed. The suggestion is that th problem nine schools are happy to enroll them, cash a check for a full year of “teaching”, and let them drop out a few months later.

    Meanwhile, the article makes it appear that many online schools are really just offering support for home schooling – that most kids will not succeed unless a parent is present to support them and keep them on task.

    That said, I would have loved an online high school that would have let me work at my own pace. If they throttle education so you can’t zoom ahead through the esy classes (or test out of them) they would be doing the better students a disservice. If you’re not getting the social side of high school (love it or hate it) why not finish in a year or two instead of four.

  2. We’ve been experimenting with for-profit post-secondary schools, including on-line schools, for decades now. If “market forces” worked in education, the best universities in the country should be for-profits, the schools “uniquely positioned to do well–which is to squeeze cost structures, find new efficiencies, and rapidly scale”. Obviously this is not the case. Can you name a single for-profit with a better reputation/value/graduation rate than a middling-quality non-profit college?

    The profiteers have failed miserably in the post-secondary field-why would any reasonable person expect that they would succeed in delivering quality on-line K-12 education? Let the Gates Foundation run some online schools free for a few years, prove that they are capable of meeting existing standards, and establish appropriate faculty/student ratios, curricula, and costs needed to meet or exceed the performance of existing schools. Then, and only then, let the corporations take over.

  3. It must be tempting to public schools to be able to send the children who aren’t progressing to online schools. Yes, the public schools lose the per-student tuition, but at least when those students score poorly on the state tests, it doesn’t count against their zoned schools.

    If there are a significant number who don’t, and won’t, make progress, no matter who teaches them, that’s good to know. Whether they should be taught in standard classrooms, or sent on their way, is a moral, not academic debate. I assume that they make minimal effort for the online schools, thus it would be more honest to allow them to drop out, rather than provide the fig leaf of online schooling. One might argue that they would gain more from typical schools, as long as they aren’t disruptive.

    I don’t see the New York Times piece as a “hit piece.” Really, now. The largest problem with online schooling is that it is a black box. Student/teacher ratio makes a difference. Teachers are not scalable. There is a physical limit to the number of students a teacher can take on, especially in subjects which demand lengthy written assignments. The student/teacher ratio is also the point at which companies can make their profit, where they can “squeeze cost structures, find new efficiencies, and rapidly scale.”

    That the NYT writer found teachers willing to disclose their teaching load leads me to believe that a high teaching load is not unusual. The unknown variable is, how many people _want_ to become online teachers? Most teachers I know are “people persons.” They like interacting with children and other people. How many introverts will be willing to devote years of their lives to an online teaching career?

  4. Thank God for the New York Times. The fraud that many for-profit colleges practice is trickling down into the k-12 realm. Thus the 1% get ever richer at our expense. Sounds like a miserable sweatshop for the teachers. Imagine how much worse it would get if public schools and unions die –no decent salaries with which to compare; wages will sink to the subsistence level. Our public schools are not perfect, but at least they’re not predatory.

  5. As a teacher at an online charter school I can understand the arguments made on both sides. Our school is supposed to save money on operational costs related to school structures, lunches, etc. But because it runs as a business it also has an advertising budget that goes towards TV, print, radio advertising that other schools do not. It pays the CEO of the company that owns, the other company the CEO owns for hosting the online curriculum, etc. Crappy computers are sent to all students, that are so slow at times that it is unreal.

    I appreciate the ability for chronically ill or bullied students to attend the school. However, it is not the answer for many young parents or other types of “problem students” that it tried to attract. Many of the students rarely log in and complete work, yet the school gets the money for them (though not all of what would have gone to their local school district).

    What I also see as a problem is this very non-personalized learning. The same students in all English 1 classes learn the very same curriculum, in the very same order, regardless of pretty much anything else. The schools concern is that when enrollment goes up it means it is easy to split classes up and hire a new teacher with the curriculum in place. Most classes, are however, pretty dull and making changes take a lot of time to reorganize all the web pages, assignments, etc. to fit.

    Teachers call students each day, leave a message for the most part, repeat indefinitely, until about 50% fail, 20% should fail, but are boosted up and then 30% are on task completing work. Most students would get a lot more information and critical thinking in a traditional classroom however, despite interuptions and distractions.