Friday, January 10, 2014

"Virtual Charter Hell"

They're about to call you a valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources?  ~Utah Phillips

The corporate education reform movement has brought us such dubious "innovations" as high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricula, union busting, and larger class sizes, all of which I've written about here quite extensively. For the most part, when I've written about the truly anti-child, anti-education aspects of this agenda, readers have been overwhelmingly supportive, but that has not necessarily been the case when it comes to charter schools. Whenever I point out that charters are perhaps the central element in the push to privatize and profit-ize our public schools, there are always those who are ready to push back in favor of charters, or at least their local charter school.

Now, I understand this because there are some charter schools doing fine work, providing progressive, child-centered educationa, based upon research, in keeping with the original idea of the grandfather of charter schools, the great Albert Shanker (who subsequently withdrew his support when he saw how his idea was being implemented). That said, the majority of charter schools across the country are being run by for-profit corporations using child labor to produce profits through standardized test scores, with the ultimate end-game of turning our entire public education system over to the private sector. Quite simply, children are hurt by this kind of environment of drill-and-kill competition.

But setting aside the bigger issue of charters for a moment, I want to shine a light on what are called "virtual charter schools." These charters deliver almost the entirety of their curriculum online. That's right, tens of thousands of kids in America are receiving their "public education" via the internet with minimal genuine contact with teachers or other students. Now this is as far as I would need to read to know that this is a disaster for children, especially since most of those enrolled in these so-called schools are at-risk children. If you're interested in reading more about how these school operate, there is currently a stomach churning guest post up over on Anthony Cody's Living in Dialog blog entitled 15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell: A Teacher's Tale. The author, Darcy Bedortha, is writing about her experiences teaching with the nation's largest such corporate chain.

K12 Inc., the virtual-education company, was founded in 1999 by the one-time "junk bond king" Michael Milken and the hedge fund banker Ronald Packard. The company's original board chairman was William J. Bennett, who had been the US Secretary of Eduction under President Ronald Reagan. (Bennett resigned from his position with K12 Inc. in 2005 after sparking controversy by stating that the US crime rate would go down if more African-American babies were aborted.)

Yes, these are the kinds of people seeking to take over our schools.

As a private company founded by financiers, K12 Inc. is highly profit-driven. Though its stock price has apparently taken a hit recently, there is little doubt that K12 Inc. has been quite successful in bringing in revenue -- even as regular public schools have faced dire financial straits. According to the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch, Packard, who is the current CEO, earned $19 million in compensation from 2009-2013. In 2013 alone, as Chicago closed 50 of its public schools and Philadelphia closed 23 more, K12 Inc. brought in a whopping $730.8 million in taxpayer dollars from its managed public schools, and its top executives saw their compensation skyrocket by 96 percent.

Yes, and these are their motives: profit and lots of it, made on the backs of children being drilled to pass tests. If they were mining coal instead of test scores, we would have shut them down long ago.

If you can stomach it, I urge you to click over to read the rest of Darcy Bedortha's piece which details the lives of teachers and students caught up in this "charter hell."

And listen, if your child is in a charter school that makes you happy, if you teach in a school that makes you proud to be a teacher, good on you. I am not criticizing your specific school, but understand, you are in a minority. The concept of charters today, as opposed to the original idea of providing teachers an opportunity to experiment with ways of reaching students who were otherwise being failed by traditional schools, is more in keeping with the K12 Inc. approach in which profits are far more important than actual learning. Our public education budgets are huge pools of money which these corporations have targeted, and from which they will extract as much profit as they possibly can, leaving our children and nation worse off for it.

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Anonymous said...

I find it slightly ironic that the teacher who is expounding on the weaknesses of an online school system proudly names herself as a student of an online PhD program in the signature.

Basbusa's Mama said...

Thank you so much for your incredibly useful, insightful, and enjoyable blog, Teacher Tom!

I was wondering if I could possibly ask for a post some time on how you run your Circle Times? I'm currently running a preschool class for a bunch of kids from families who homeschool (although these kids themselves are too little to be official "homeschoolers" yet), and I'd love to know more about your circle times.

I'm trying to model our mornings as closely as I can on the way you run yours, and overall it's been fantastic so far. (Like you, I have plenty of other moms to call on for help, since we're a co-op.) But the one part of our sessions that I'm still unsure about is the Circle Time. I have 13 kids, ranging from young 3's to 6.5, and I haven't found an approach to circle time that keeps them all engaged. And if the little ones aren't engaged, as I'm sure you can imagine, the discussion very quickly becomes less enjoyable for everyone.

My instinct is that if a 3-year-old is clearly not interested in sitting in a circle, and is very eager to be up and doing and exploring, then we should let him? But at the same time, the older kids do seem to get quite a lot out of our discussions when we get a chance to get really involved in the conversation.

I'd love to hear what circle time looks like for your three classes, whether you do it every day, how long you plan for it to last, whether you have it first thing in the morning or later on when the kids have had some wiggle-time, etc...? Currently we have 30 minutes of free play in a giant gymnasium, circle time, story-and-snack time, and then about an hour and a quarter of free-choice activity time, with five stations for the kids to roam between.

I would really appreciate more details about the nuts-and-bolts at Woodland Park, but in any case, I can never thank you enough for all I've learned from your blog.

Amy said...

My post is to anonymous:
There is no irony. Online education is not as big an issue for adults who handle themselves and use it with integrity. I have two online degrees.
I also have been teaching for a k12, Inc. school in Louisiana. I was forced to resign. What Bedortha says is accurate.
I was put on "Professional Improvement Plan' the week before exams. I was told to stay on the phone and call kids to get them to do work. I did this and managed to get a few to turn in assignments, but no real spectacular results. I was again called in and told that I was on the brink of being let go and they needed to see my passing rates go up (during exam week). I tearfully asked how, since those who had done the work or not had really just made their decisions by that point. I was told to do things like move honors kids from honors to regular courses if they hadn't done the honors work and to encourage kids who had never done anything to at least take the final and that could be their final grade. I was called for the "firing" the last day of exams 30 minutes before my grades had even been finished. I didn't realize because I was getting my kids, so I called back Monday and was given 20 minutes to decide whether I would be fired or resign. Interestingly, I never saw the final numbers for passing rates, even though I asked to see them. I had been given charts the two weeks prior with my numbers.If you look at my grade book, it is full of EXC. I refused to EXC major unit tests and papers. Most kids still failed who had done very little. I was told it was because I had not built personal relationships with families to get them to do the work. Um... I drove 6 hours to visit one family in a crisis and used another student's mailbox as a dropbox because she couldn't get to the internet. If building relationships was really the focus, I would have been given some recognition for that.

I was asked why I had added more writing work to the curriculum. Did I not agree with the K12,Inc. curriculum? I said that no, there are holes and these kids do not come out knowing a process for writing. So I added it to try and create some accountability between first and last drafts. They need to learn how to write before college professors get them. I was told "These kids just want to pass high school. Our job is to make them feel successful". The implication here is that my adding some rigor and challenge to the writing as well as accountability meant the kids were less likely to do the work. I was told my job was "80% customer service and 20% teaching", which I find offensive as someone who has worked so hard to be a teacher, and a good one.
We were speaking two languages. I was in the room thinking I was being told I was not a good teacher and trying hard to think of how I could improve as a teacher, when all they were interested in was how I could improve in "customer service'.
What they were telling us to do at LAVCA was in absolute disagreement with what I was learning about in my doctoral classes. As a result of burnout, I have stepped down the pursuit of a doctorate and will be finishing with a Specialist degree in Teacher Leadership this April. Somehow, after all this insult, I don't feel like a teacher leader, although I know I could have been had I been allowed to pursue my ideas and had I been respected as a teacher rather than a customer service representative in a diploma mill. I am now an unemployed teacher struggling to find work in my field.