Guest column: Understanding educational issues at Arizona Virtual Academy - The Explorer: Opinion

Guest column: Understanding educational issues at Arizona Virtual Academy

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Dave Safier

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 4:00 am | Updated: 10:47 am, Wed Oct 16, 2013.

Last week the stock price for K12 Inc., a Virginia based, for-profit education corporation, plummeted almost 40 percent in a single day. Why, you may ask, should we care about the fortunes of some Virginia corporation? The reason is, K12 Inc. is the parent company of Arizona Virtual Academy and its 4,200 students scattered around the state, many of whom get very little in the way of education. Some get none at all. Understanding the causes of the stock plunge helps us understand what’s wrong with the Arizona school.

We should also care because of Craig Barrett, the chairman of Governor Brewer’s Arizona Ready Education Council, who has a powerful role steering the state’s education funding and policy. He’s one of nine people sitting on K12 Inc.’s national Board of Directors, yet he remains silent about the corporation’s shoddy educational practices in Arizona and across the country.

Arizona Virtual Academy (AZVA) is an online charter school. It has no school buildings and no classrooms. Its 4,200 students sit at home getting their lessons from their computers and from textbooks the school provides. Many of the teachers work out of their homes; some “teach” as many as 300 students. And because it’s a charter school, we pay AZVA for every student it enrolls, and AZVA sends the money to the Virginia headquarters which does the hiring and firing and sets the curriculum.

I’m not against online learning. I was using computers and the internet in my classroom long before the practice became popular. But I’m against the misuse of online learning, and K12 Inc.’s schools, including AZVA, border on educational malpractice. Maybe 15 percent of AZVA’s students are well suited for stay-at-home online education. They’re self-motivated, and they have an educated parent at home who can make up for the lack of attention the kids get from their teachers. The rest of the students lack the motivation or the ability to succeed sitting at home with a computer in front of them and a textbook on their lap. For them, AZVA is a disaster.

That’s why K12 Inc. schools across the country have test scores far below the state average, and it’s why last year, AZVA was on academic probation with the state. It’s also why somewhere between a third and a half of the students leave each year.

K12 Inc. knows many of its students are ill-suited for online learning. In fact, recruiting those students is part of its business plan, because more students means more money, and more money means higher profits. The corporation runs call centers which target potential dropouts and special education students, feeding their parents misleading information about how well their children will do. Once the students are enrolled, teachers are required to keep them on the books even if they rarely log in, even if they rarely turn in assignments. Teachers are urged to find ways to pass students who have no business passing.

Which brings us to that 40 percent drop in K12 Inc.’s stock price. Stockholders panicked because the student enrollment and corporate earnings were lower than projected.

Actually, both enrollment and earnings were up, but they weren’t rising fast enough. The corporation is under intense constant pressure to recruit ever more students, regardless of their chances of success, to increase its profit margins. Is it any wonder K12 Inc. worries more about recruitment than education?

K12 Inc. has earned lots of well-deserved bad press over the years for its high pressure recruiting tactics and shoddy educational practices, but if anything, things have gotten worse as it increases its laser-like focus on the bottom line. Craig Barrett, Brewer’s education point man and K12 Inc. board member, refuses to discuss his views about the corporation’s educational practices. Someone needs to ask him, why should a man who sits on the board of a failing online school be in a position to determine the direction of Arizona’s education policy?

(Editors Note: Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.)

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