NYT explodes myth of online education as efficient, high quality solution

Kudos | By Remapping Debate |

Dec. 14, 2011 — Kudos to Stephanie Saul for her months-long examination of the theory that “corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.”

Saul focused on a company called K12, Inc., described as the largest in the online school business. As a result of her investigation, she writes, there are serious questions “about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.”

Among the issues raised by the 5,000 word piece:

  • students in Agora (the K12 school featured in the story) apparently did not perform as well as students enrolled in regular schools. Studies have shown a pattern of students in online schools performing below their regular school peers;

  • though online schools have lower expenses than brick-and-mortor schools, the savings that accrue from having a physical plant are not passed along to school districts;

  • “What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education…These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”
    — University of Colorado research professor as quoted in the Times article.

    allowing students to remain registered even when they were not “showing up” for the virtual classes;

  • difficulties determining whether work is being performed by the student or by the student’s parent;

  • a pricing scheme that provides financial incentive for school systems to select a model with higher class size and lower teacher pay;

  • enormous class sizes (one source alleged that classes routinely had from 70 to 100 students each);

  • high-pressure sales tactics to lure families to enroll;

  • spending a substantial portion of money received from school districts on advertising, rather than spending only on educating students; and

  • significant expenditures on lobbying to promote the acceptance (and funding) of online schools.

Notably, the article provides the reader with the ideological framework that feeds the online school movement and often informs press coverage of it: schools, it is often said, should be treated no differently from for-profit ventures. The accompanying assumption, the article makes clear, is that solutions that are market-based and “efficient” will yield superior results.

In doing so, Saul gives the reader the necssary background to understand the evidence she unearths. The findings of the article suggest that what is really happening is that online schools are taking advantage of “government-financed business, much as military contractors have capitalized on Pentagon spending.”

The fascination in education circles with trying to replicate corporations is not limited to the primary and secondary levels; at numerous universities, the new concepts are growth and branding and presence in multiple markets.

There and elsewhere, it would be useful to do as Saul has done and put the assumption that the corporate model is beneficial to an empirical test.


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