Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Apples to Apples?

K12 Inc., the country's largest provider of online k-12 education has come under fire from several sources recently for it's attempts to turn a profit by drawing students away from traditional public education classrooms.  Just last week, the New York Times ran an article subtitled Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street than in the Classroom.  Sounds like a pretty bold claim, but we've argued before, with the dot.com decline and housing market bubble burst, education may be the last safe refuge for Wall Street in the 21st century.

Ron Packard, CEO of K12 Inc, issued a reply to this article yesterday in the Fordam Education Institute's Flypaper.  I'm not completely opposed to Virtual Education.  I believe that responsible virtual education within the framework of existing educational structures is vital for 21st century learning.  I do have reservations about a complete package of online education outsourced to a distant and nebulous institution whose primary purpose is maximizing profit.  This description may not fairly characterize K12 Inc., but Packard's defense of the company in response to the NY Times articles is less than convincing.  Of the several arguments presented by Ron Packard, I found number one most lacking.  I've pasted the text of his argument below:
Academic performance of virtual schools: K12 data shows that a large and growing number of students coming into virtual schools are below grade level. The high growth rate of virtual schools means that a large portion of students taking the state tests are in their first year. This makes static test scores poor measures of a school’s overall performance because students perform better on state tests the longer they are enrolled. To measure academic growth, K12 administers third party norm-referenced tests.  Data from these tests show students are making positive academic gains relative to national norms.
 This is not the first time that I've heard this argument to defend poor results of online learning or even charter schools.  So, let's look closely at this argument.  First, Mr. Packard argues that students coming into his schools are below grade level.  It stands to reason that their performance will fall below that of on-grade level students.  Does that mean it's the student's fault and not the school?  I'm o.k. with that as long as we let our "traditional" public schools put forth the same argument.  Do students matter or not?  We have to be careful not to allow student ability or circumstances to provide an excuse for poor service.  If online schools and charters are given a pass because of the population they're dealing with then let's not apply a different standard to public schools dealing with the same students in order to label them as failing.

Second, it looks like the tests are getting blamed.  In the world of public education, again this argument doesn't fly.  The tests are the tests and if you can't perform then you're not performing.  Have you noticed any of the value-added or growth model laws passing across the nation?  It doesn't matter whether students are transferring, adding, dropping, repeating, or not even in your class in some states.  If the test scores aren't good enough, you're not good enough.  That applies to schools and increasingly to teachers as well.  If the tests aren't good enough to judge online education and charters then why do we assume they're good enough to judge traditional public schools.

I suppose if you can be identified by initials and your stock is publicly traded a different set of standards apply.  That shouldn't be a surprise, we've known for a while that Wall Street standards don't apply to the rest of us.


  1. On the Answer Sheet today:


  2. Great post Steve.

    My concerns related to the virtual school is not so much with their use but with their misuse and given the recent past and how education has been led I think those concerns are warranted. I am not against privatization in and of itself, or maybe I am. Companies have always played some role in our schools(books, food services, maintenance, etc) but when they control curriculum and just about everything else it seems to violate a very fundamental principle. That is that these are public schools and part of the public trust. They are intended to serve the greater good and not the bottom line. Once we hand them the keys will we be able to take them back?

    Here another WP article from a few weeks back.

    I found the comments on the story interesting to read:

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