K12 Inc. CEO Ron Packard responds to NYTimes' criticism

Ron Packard

Guest blogger Ron Packard is CEO of K12 Inc.,
the country’s largest online learning company. In this post, he
responds to criticisms of the effectiveness and cost of K12′s schools
raised in a
New York Times report last week.

In September of 2011, I was invited by the New York Times to speak at the paper’s Schools for Tomorrow
conference. It brought together educators, philanthropists, and leaders
in the public and private sectors to discuss how America’s education
system can better educate students and prepare them to compete in a
global economy. To sponsor the event, the Times reached out to
leading education and technology companies including Intel Corporation,
McGraw Hill, and the company I founded and lead, K12 Inc. The goal of
the conference was clear and unequivocal: “To harness the power of
technology to improve the learning experience. Democratize access to
quality education. And elevate the American student to a higher level.”
At the conference there was universal agreement about the urgency to
innovate in the public education system; the need for a shift from
one-size-fits-all education models, challenging the status quo, and
rethinking the way children can learn through personalized instruction,
adaptive curriculum, and innovative learning platforms.

I was pleased to see the Times advocating for the same ideas that drove me to start K12 Inc. Yet only four months later, the Times published
an embarrassingly one-sided and unfair attack on K12 Inc. and online
learning. The article was laced with factual inaccuracies and misleading
anecdotes, leaving out every success story of how K12 has worked with
public schools and educators to serve students.  While it is probably
unproductive to go point by point, it is worth correcting a few of the
many unfounded allegations presented in the article.

  1. 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.
  2. Teachers:  The stories in the Times article are atypical
    and misleading. K12-affiliated schools have multiple applicants for
    every teaching job and few teachers leave voluntarily. Despite all of
    the sophisticated technology, teachers remain the most important part of
    student learning in virtual schools associated with K12.  A school’s
    overall student-to-teacher ratio is determined by the public school
    boards and their budgets, not K12. The school cited in the Times article, Agora Cyber Charter School, has a total student-to-certified teaching staff of 25:1, not 250 as the Times suggested.
  3. Ease of virtual schooling: The article implies that virtual
    schooling is easy. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the
    main reasons parents cite for leaving a K12-affiliated school is because
    of the rigor and time commitment. Schools can improve their retention
    by “dumbing down” the curriculum, but this is something K12 would never
    even consider.
  4. Savings to taxpayers and cost: Virtual schools are a significant savings to taxpayers as they are reimbursed, on average, 60
    percent of the per pupil funding received by traditional schools on a
    per pupil basis. To imply that a full-time public virtual school costs
    only $1000 per pupil to operate is ridiculous. Teachers alone cost
    significantly more than that per child.  K12 did not have income of $72M
    from Agora. K12’s global net income last year was only $12.8M.
  5. Compliance with attendance: Virtual
    schools managed by K12 comply with all state laws and regulations, and
    are regularly audited. Attendance regulations vary from state to state.
    The online schools follow all state policies and procedures, and work
    closely with the state to ensure accuracy of attendance records and full
    compliance. The K12 software gives teachers and administrators
    visibility into student engagement in the lessons and material on a
    daily basis.

Online and blended schools are broadening options for children,
increasing access to quality courses and content, and helping educators
deliver individualized and differentiated instruction. The variety of
children being served in these schools is stunning: struggling students,
gifted students, special-needs students, and medically-challenged
students to name a few. K12 has invested hundreds of millions of dollars
to develop rigorous curriculum, learning platforms, and
technology-based instructional and assessment tools for teachers to use
in public schools. For technology to fulfill its promise, the world
needs private companies that can innovate and bring it to scale. K12 is
serving over 2,000 schools and school districts in the U.S., providing
everything from individual courses and assessment tools to blended and
online programs. K12 provides AP and honors courses in districts that
otherwise could not offer those courses to students. We’re working with
districts to revamp their credit recovery and remediation programs, an
area in education that has fallen short for too long. Because of online
learning, students today in elementary through high school across the
U.S. can participate in world language courses that were previously
inaccessible to them.

Two years ago, in an expanded partnership with Chicago Public
Schools, K12 helped launch one of the finest school programs for at-risk
students. Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS) Virtual High School is
helping students who had dropped out of school obtain a high school
diploma. Using K12’s blended “Passport” model — instruction from
teachers both online and face-to-face and significant flexibility for
students (many of whom are trying to juggle a job, caring for young
children, etc.) – this school is helping young adults earn a high school
degree.  Not only are students successfully graduating, but most are
also pursuing post-secondary education.

To be sure, there are challenges facing the digital learning industry
as it continues to serve a larger and more at-risk student population,
but all students deserve a choice. While brick-and-mortar schools work
for most students, there are some students who learn better with a more
individualized approach which an online school can deliver, and they
deserve that choice. All students in these virtual schools have a parent
who has chosen for them to be there. Although most parents will not
exercise that choice, they all deserve to have it, especially since many
students are falling behind in brick-and-mortar schools.

I hope the Times continues the Schools for Tomorrow series
and continues to advocate for a strong partnership between the public
and private sectors. I’ve seen how technology-based education can
revitalize the classroom, empower teachers, and, through the power of
online learning, deliver excellent educational opportunities to all
students regardless of where they live. I believe the advancements in
education technology are an incredible catalyst for improvement.
Combined with bold ideas and shared commitment to improve policies and
practices, the goals outlined by the Times’ Schools For Tomorrow can be realized.

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