K12 Administrators: No Choice Is a Choice

By Jennifer Imsande

To all those K-12 public school administrators out there who are starting, or have started, the Sisyphean task of pushing your district up the Internet Revolution hill and into 21st century web-based teaching and learning models, thank you.

Here’s my concern. Your desperate need for digital curriculum and online education services created a lucrative market. Per-pupil tax money is attracting investors like bacon attracts a bear. If you don’t know how to distinguish the good guys selling good product from the foxes circling the hen house, we’ll all pay the price.

Here’s the scenario. Your district does some research, casts around, and a couple of education-tech companies with big portfolios and great logos rise to the surface. Parents and teachers gush in page after page of marketing material. This curriculum seems so great it could almost cure little Johnny’s acne. Certainly it could close the learning gap in your district! You sign the dotted line.

But where educational products are concerned, the market isn’t rewarding long-term commitments to innovation and positive outcomes. You invested in a product that stopped improving four years ago when it was bought by a venture capitalist firm attracted to the “high potential for long-term growth in cash-flow.” Research and development took a back seat to marketing, executive compensation packages, and paying off investors.

Here’s the worst-case scenario, which is playing out in states around the country: Your district decides to create a virtual school, signs a “turn-key” management contract with your for-profit curriculum provider. Because money follows students, the company launches an aggressive enrollment campaign, one that allows students to enroll even in the middle of a session, and attracts students least likely to succeed in an online environment.

“We should be attracting independent, motivated learners,” says one teacher at a virtual Minnesota school managed by one of the largest of these for-profit companies. “Instead we’re attracting kids who are failing in the bricks-and-mortar system. Eight of my twelve new kids in this last enrollment period were special education kids.” So we have teachers “who don’t know the curriculum, don’t know how to teach online, and certainly don’t have a model to teach special ed kids online.”

“Our max,” she says, “is 160 students. But the norm is closer to 200. It’s cheaper for the company to pay overload than hire staff.”

“Marketing is always asking for stories of ‘great’ students. They never want to hear about Mikey who hasn’t done any work all year and who dropped from a 5th to a 4th grade level in math in one year. And when I want to call him on not doing the work, I’m told ‘you can’t do that.’”

In fact, investigations of this company’s virtual schools in Colorado and Pennsylvania have resulted in a class-action lawsuit. Investors claim that executives used dubious enrollment and auditing practices to mislead them about high rates of withdrawal (or “churn”) and failing student performance. Recently executives were also called to Tennessee’s state capitol to answer questions about failing virtual schools.

Don’t be tempted by the horror stories to avoid making a choice. There are good companies and ways of doing this.

Given what I’ve learned through ten years of teaching higher ed courses online, and as the parent of a fourteen-year-old who wants to enroll in a virtual school or take online classes (our small rural school can’t afford to fill some of the gaps in its offerings), here are the things I’d insist upon if I were a district shopping for vendors.

The financial model of the company is key, says Michael Ehrhardt, head of Duluth’s Marshall School, a private school that is in its third successful year of offering online courses to students. You want to find a non-profit, or a for-profit that acts like a non-profit. Its profits should go back into the product, not into marketing and compensation packages for executives. Which investors are you in partnership with? It pays to know. Have any ever served time in federal prison for racketeering? You’d be surprised.

Be wary of claims that it will save your district money and save your teachers time.

Instead, make sure the company’s core business is in line with your own. Because Marshall’s mission is to educate global citizens and 21st century learners, it selected a collaborative that is international in scope. Marshall students take classes with learners and teachers from 25 countries.

And make sure your product can diagnose where students are vis-à-vis state mandated common core language competencies.

Make sure it allows customization. Master teachers in your district should be able to substitute their own successful content.

Make sure it offers ongoing professional development for teachers, who should learn in the same way their students will be learning.

Be wary of a company that says this product can work for any kid. There is no magic pill. Make it be honest about what it needs from students, parents, administrators, school boards, and teachers.

The company should offer, or at least be on the verge of implementing, adaptive technology. Adaptive technology does more than accelerate or decelerate learning based on how the learner is doing. It can determine why a kid taking 9th grade algebra is stalling out — identify, for example, that she missed fractions in the 3rd grade. Then it assigns that content to get her on track. It can even change how the content is delivered if it senses a learner isn’t responding to a particular modality.

Again, don’t let the horror stories keep you from making a choice. No choice is a choice: to hold back your district’s students and fail to adapt to the world our children will live and work in. May you not put my child’s education and my tax dollars at risk. And may the Force be with you.