The front page of the New York Times recently featured an article which was highly-critical of several full-time online schools in Eastern states that use the K12 company’s proprietary curriculum. The article came on the heels of Wall Street Journal and Washington Post articles which also focused negatively on K12. Idaho has the statewide Idaho Virtual Academy public charter school and seven district K12 virtual academies in the Bonneville, Jefferson County, Lakeland, Middleton, Minidoka, Vallivue and West Bonner school districts. In light of this presence, the serious problems with the Times’ analysis need to be addressed.
The Times characterizes virtual academies as for-profit schools, but in Idaho at least, this is simply not the case. The seven district academies are district schools. The Idaho Virtual Academy, a public charter school, is a non-profit Idaho corporation, just like every other public charter school. The districts and the Idaho Virtual Academy buy materials from a for-profit company, K12. Similarly, other schools buy textbooks from Scholastic, insurance from Aflac and cafeteria food from Sysco, all of which are for-profit companies. It is somehow lost on the Times that buying goods and services from for-profit companies doesn’t make a public school a for-profit enterprise.
The Times makes a very big deal out of the virtual academies being paid according to enrollment. This is hardly news - nearly all public schools are funded according to enrollment. Whether or not they should be is a different debate, and the answer in that debate is “no.” Idaho’s schools ought to get paid according to student outcomes the way digital providers are paid in Utah. But for now, if an Idaho public school doesn’t get the fannies in the seats, it doesn’t get its state appropriation. Seven forward-looking Idaho school districts must have gotten tired of losing students to the Idaho Virtual Academy and so they started district K12 schools of their own. Kudos to these districts that are giving families what they want.
The Times accurately points out the virtual academies rarely make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as required by federal No Child Left Behind law. K12 says many students enter the virtual academies several grade levels behind and the longer they stay in the schools, the better they do. This spring, the Idaho Virtual Academy turned the tide and made AYP - just in time for Superintendent Tom Luna to ask permission for Idaho to opt out of No Child Left Behind. If Idaho gets the waiver, there won’t be a track record to see if the Idaho Virtual Academy makes AYP from here on. However, as a ten-year-old school with students who have been in the school several years, the school finally making AYP may prove K12’s point.
AYP says something about a school, but a family choosing a particular school comes down to how a particular child fits. Not every student succeeds in a traditional school, just like not every student would succeed in a full-time online school. My family has been grateful for our freedom to choose the Idaho Virtual Academy for our three children for the last ten years. Digital learning’s customizability allows them to move at their own pace - something the Times finds strangely disturbing. The model requires subject mastery; students go to the next subject when they have mastered the previous one and not before.
Ultimately, individualized, digital learning has taught our children that work yields success. This is profoundly different from what educating students in batches teaches about the nature of work. Except for the average child - and what child is “average” in all subjects? - the classroom pace will always be either too fast or too slow. Working harder at schoolwork makes no difference for either the bewildered or bored student. Personalized digital learning, on the other hand, makes working on a challenging problem and succeeding a normal experience. I think digital learning is the education method of the future, and I’m optimistic about what an America full of people who worked hard for thirteen of their formative years, instead of coasting or giving up, will be like.
The New York Times should never have put a tabloid-like piece unworthy of the paper’s stature on its front page. Its readers need to demand better, more informed reporting on subjects as important as the state of American education and the future of digital learning.