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Public Financing Supports Growth of Online Charter Schools

Ohanian Comment: It always amazes me that the content of the K12 online material is never mentioned. Reporters just take K12's word for it. Increasingly, the Feds and the State worry about the content of public school teachers lessons, but Charters are free to go their own way.

If Common Core Standards are inflicted on us, will ALL schools that get public money be subjected to them?

I slogged my way through the K12 history lessons--ALL of them, enrolling my three virutal children--Joe, Mary Beth, and Annie. And I survived to write about it. I confess I also bought the K-2 Language Arts lessons but could not force myself to get through all of them.

Don't skip the appendix, which shows the scope and sequence of K12 History in primary grades.

In that report, I quoted this statement from then-K12 guru William Bennett: "This isn't home schooling--Florida Virtual Academy is a public school."

Collecting public school dollars. Without any public accountability.

As I noted in the report: Throughout the curriculum, the lessons had the same structure: learning presented as stimulus and response; training children to parrot phrases they do not understand; offering rote responses to horrific events.

And when I say "horrific,"I mean horrific.

History as Murder and Mayhem [2nd grade history curriculum]
A coloring sheet accompanying the story of Horatius at the Bridge depicts fierce, armed warriors grimly advancing toward the viewer. It seems inconsistent in a home-schooling curriculum for 7-year-olds, considering that public schools operate under zero-tolerance policies under which a child who points a finger at a peer and says "bang" risks suspension. I found it so upsetting I wrote an angry note to K12. No one replied. By the way, Horatius lost an eye in battle--but kept on fighting. Hoorah for war. And pestilence too. Later Annie gets to study the Black Death.
--from The K12 Virtual Primary School History Curriculum: A Participant's-eye View

With the current push for public school teachers to demonstrate superior knowledge, skills, and standardized test results, this statement to the people who deliver the K12 publicly-funded curriculum is more than ironic:

For parents who may not feel confident to teach a curriculum that extends from the Stone Age in 5000 B.C. to ancient India in 200 B.C., including the Egyptians, the Israelites, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, India, and China, K12 says: "Don't worry. The K12 program does not assume that you have extensive preparation in either world or American history. Rather, lessons are designed to provide background knowledge as you proceed." K12 provides a script to make this happen:

  • Have Mary Beth locate the Fertile Crescent on the map you printed (from a PDF file).

  • Ask Mary Beth to point to the Mediterranean (med-ih-terr-AY-nee-an) Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and the Red Sea.

  • Have Mary Beth practice saying the names aloud with you.

  • Identify the Nile River. Tell Mary Beth that the Nile River flows into the Mediterranean Sea.

  • After more of this type of adult-directed lesson with parroted student answers, Mary Beth takes an assessment:

  • Did Mary Beth find the Nile River on the map?

  • Did Mary Beth locate the Egyptian Empire along the Nile?

  • Did Mary Beth answer the question: What does the flooding of the Nile leave behind?

  • If Mary Beth misses one question, the parent receives this message: The lesson should be redone to ensure mastery of this lesson's objectives. If she repeats the assessment and still misses one, the instructions are to repeat again--to ensure mastery. In a classroom, an experienced teacher will give children who didn't understand the material alternatives--giving children a variety of activities that would come at the material from other modes of learning, so they might better comprehend the concepts covered in the materials. Such strategies would reflect multiple intelligence theory pioneered by Howard Gardner. With K12, if one insists on mastery, the only option is to repeat the same lesson again and again.
    --from "The K12 Virtual Primary School History Curriculum: A Participant's-eye View"

    Many of the retellings of myths--for 6-year-olds sounds more appropriate to Jerry Springer: adultery, infanticide, magic, and multiple slaughters. With pages for the kid to color. A recounting of the Trojan War gets seven pages of battle in the K12 online Reading Room. Then it's on to the battle at Thermopylae in 480B.C.

    Moving on to the curriculum for second graders, Annie is told that although she is coloring just one elephant, Hannibal had dozens. Public school gives children in primary grades moral lessons from Babar and George and Martha; K12 brings them Hannibal's "elephants specially trained for war."

    In one lesson Annie is told to dress up like Julius Caesar and pretend that she is returning from a successful military campaign. The parent-teacher is told that this costume party is a device for helping Annie to feel close to an important historical figure. In the next lesson Caesar is killed by 23 of his "friends."
    "Et tu, Brute?" (ay-TOO broot-AY) Caesar gasped. (Those are Latin words that mean "You, too, Brutus?")
    --from K12 History lesson, 2nd grade

    After being told about Shakespeare's Mark Antony speech, Annie is instructed to prepare her own short speech, presenting her ideas about what people today should remember about Caesar . . . and she's told to begin with the words, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!" She is invited to draw a picture showing Caesar's murder.

    E. D. Hirsch, an enthusiastic supporter of the Common Core, waits until third grade for the murder of Julius Caesar [What Your Third Grader Needs to Know], and he presents Caesar's killers as his "enemies." It takes K12, receiving public tax dollars, to tell second graders to draw a picture of someone she's supposed to feel close to being killed by friends.

    And on and on.

    I stress the content of K12 lessons--because nobody else mentions it. And because the US Department of Education and the Governors and Bill Gates--who are insisting on the Common Core--are telling us content is essential. K12 tells parent-teachers to deliver the battle at Thermopylae to 6-year-olds. The Common Core tell public school teachers to deliver As I Lay Dying to 15-year-olds.

    In 2004, the Education Policy Studies Laboratory released two reports on K-12 together. The other one was by Gerald Bracey: Knowledge University and Virtual Schools: Educational Breakthrough or Digital Raid on the Public Treasury?

    Why mention six-year-old studies? Because they are as relevant today as they were then. With the Common Core looming, they're probably more relevant today.

    If only individual home-schooling families were buying this curriculum for their private use, then the curriculum presentation and content would be of marginal interest. But as the curriculum moves into public schools, parents might start asking questions. They might question all those coloring sheets. They might question why their children are crying over Hannibal's elephants. They might question why their second graders are studying the organizational hierarchy of the Catholic Church--cutting out colored construction paper to represent the relative authority of the pope, bishops, and archbishops. If parents reflect and begin questioning all this, then maybe the press and the politicians will follow.
    --from "The K12 Virtual Primary School History Curriculum: A Participant's-eye View"

    By Carol Pogash

    Laura Drews has converted a corner of her San Jose dining room into a public school. Every weekday, she guides her first-, fifth- and eighth-grade children through their class assignments, delivered through textbooks and desktop computers.

    The Drews' unorthodox education is paid for by taxpayers, but created and operated by a for-profit company based in Virginia. The California Virtual Academy at San Mateo is part of an expanding network of virtual public schools, including 10 in the Bay Area, that provide much of the instruction online with the help of a parent.

    The schools are a manifestation of the charter school movement, which gives parents and students more choice in public education. Proponents say the virtual schools give students the intimacy of home schooling while maintaining the structure of a public school. Nationally, there are an estimated 200,000 full-time virtual charter school students, said Susan Patrick, chief executive of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

    Behind the blue screen, however, is a host of unanswered questions about a system that seemingly requires little overhead. There are no libraries, cafeterias, playgrounds, coaches, janitors, nurses, buses or bus drivers -- but can cost taxpayers per student as much as or more than traditional public schools.

    This year, the San Mateo virtual school attended by the Drews children is expected to receive $5,105 per student in state and federal money --$375 more per student than what children in their authorizing school district of Jefferson Elementary in Daly City are expected to receive, said the district.

    The school, California Virtual Academy at San Mateo, is a creation of K12 Incorporated, a publicly traded corporation started in 2000 by Ron Packard, an economist and engineer, and Bill Bennett, the secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. Initial financing came from Knowledge Universe, a creation of the financier Michael Milken. Mr. Milken, who served time in prison in the early 1990s for securities violations, has bought or started dozens of for-profit education companies, including day care centers.

    K12 operates virtual schools in 25 states and abroad. It lends students computers, printers, software and books and pays a part of their Internet connection costs. K12 materials include print as well as interactive learning.

    K12 signs 3-year-to-10-year management contracts with its charter public schools to provide virtual education. These contracts, according to the company's annual report, "provide the basis for a recurring revenue stream as students progress through successive grades." The company protects its "intellectual property" by having teachers and students sign confidentiality agreements, according to information filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    "A virtual education is expensive," said Katrina Abston, the head of schools for CAVA, and a K12 employee.

    The nine K12 California schools share the cost of a 10,000-square-foot office and storage space in Simi Valley. "There's back-end support and computers and the type of curriculum we use is expensive," Ms. Abston said. "They make sure we're cutting edge."

    More than half the San Mateo virtual academy's budget last year was owed to K12, including $642,304 for management fees to oversee the 900 students in their homes and $2.7 million for instructional materials and technology.

    Diane Ravitch, a leading educational historian who until recently favored charter schools, is strongly critical of the virtual charter system. Ms. Ravitch said the system eliminated "brick and mortar schools and it bypasses the unions," mainly for the benefit of for-profit companies.

    Twenty percent of California's 872 charter schools now conduct some or all of their classes online. CAVA has 11,000 students in California; 900 are students at CAVA San Mateo, where enrollment is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, according to K12.

    The CAVA curriculum gives "an adult a script on how to teach a student," Mrs. Drews said. She said she consulted with elementary teachers only about her children's compositions. K12 offers "mastery-based curriculum," with assessment tests that must be passed before a student can move to the next lesson, though at the elementary level those decisions are left to the parents.

    High school students can talk to their teachers in voluntary weekly online conferences -- but not in person, since their teachers are scattered across the state. They communicate through e-mail and through K12's Web sites, messaging and internal e-mail system.

    Elementary school students learn at their own pace and are graded by their parents. They meet their teachers for a half-hour or longer, three or four times a year at a library or church.

    CAVA schools rely on the honor system because, short of fingerprint or facial recognition, there is no way to be sure who is tapping at the keyboard. Students in physical education classes -- a class that is required by the state -- are graded in part on self-reporting of regular exercise.

    K12 reports that its students test "near state averages," according to documents filed with the S.E.C. Last year, at CAVA's San Mateo school, 57 percent of students achieved proficiency or above in English; 33 percent were proficient or advanced in math. Nearly 30 percent of the high school students drop out, which is higher than the state average of 24 percent.

    Many parents, especially those with younger children, have expressed satisfaction with the curriculum.

    "CAVA is beautiful," said Leigh Austin-Schmidt, whose sixth and seventh graders attend school at their home in Pleasanton. "There's a wonderful section on teacher tips, how to prepare for a lesson if I didn't know something."

    The San Mateo school attracts families dissatisfied with their public school and seeking a more independent learning environment, flexible hours or more support for students.

    Linda Brown said her ninth-grade son, who is in special education, "is doing way better than he would have in public school." But she added that for her fifth-grade daughter, "the social aspect is the thing we miss the most."

    On their own, San Jose parents have organized and take turns teaching weekly art, music and science programs at a local church.

    Oversight for California public charter schools falls to the authorizing districts. Although the Jefferson Elementary School district reviews CAVA's curriculum and its budget, it lacks the manpower to verify the records.

    "We have to take their word for it," said Enrique Navas, assistant superintendent of business services at the district. "It's a paper review."

    Despite the fact that K12 plans to open more schools in the state, Ms. Abston, CAVA's head of school, said all nine California schools operated at a loss.

    "K12 provides CAVA a full, turn-key education solution, a complete comprehensive education at a cost less than the average total cost of a student in traditional public schools," Jeff Kwitowski, K12's vice president for public relations, said in an e-mail message. He added that online public schools received about 30 percent less in total financing than traditional schools.

    Luis Huerta, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a nationally recognized scholar on charter schools and school finance who has researched virtual charters for 14 years, disputed that, saying of Mr. Kwitowski, "he is unequivocally incorrect."

    "Nationally, cyber charters on average receive the equivalent amount of funding as traditional schools," Professor Huerta said.

    He added that there was minimal overhead and minimal accountability.

    If virtual charter school costs are lower, Professor Huerta said, "then where is the money going?"

    "It doesn't add up," he said.

    — Carol Pogash with Ohanian comment
    New York Times





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