Students work on schoolwork for Tennessee Virtual Academy, via a good New York Times story on the school
Format-shifting massively online open courses are currently the darling of Silicon Valley, billed as a way cut education costs while delivering a better user experience to students. And in many ways, it's a correct assessment: programs like the Khan Academy are shaking up the education model for its own good. But simply privatizing classes and pushing them online isn't the only answer, as a strange case in Tennessee shows.
In Knoxville, a for-profit online public school called the Tennessee Virtual Academy, which has been under pressure because of bottom-tier standardized test scores, has been implicated in a grade-rigging scheme by a local news outlet. To add more fuel to the fire, K12 Inc., the company that started the school, has received millions in state funding despite being a for-profit initiative.
From Phil Williams of News Channel 5, who broke the story:
The email -- labeled "important -- was written in December by the Tennessee Virtual Academy's vice principal to middle school teachers.
"After ... looking at so many failing grades, we need to make some changes before the holidays," the email begins.
Among the changes: Each teacher "needs to take out the October and September progress [reports]; delete it so that all that is showing is November progress."
"Does it talk about we need to make changes in curriculum? Does it talk about we need to make changes in our teaching strategy? No," Tennessee state representative Gloria Johnson observed. "Those changes we need to make are deleting grades from the computer system."
The email uncovered by Channel 5 also instructs teachers to drop low scores on tests to help pull their averages up, saying "If you have given an assignment and most of your students failed that assignment, then you need to take that grade out." The principal of the school defended the email, comparing the practice of deleting bad scores to offering make-up grades, and said that the true test of the school will be students' performance on standardized tests at the end of the year.
Ignoring the fact that the entire school is likely now going to be dedicated to teaching directly to standardized tests–hardly the paradigm shift that online enterprises are supposed to offer–there's the greater issue that the only people profiting off the partially state-funded school are its administrators. As noted by Tennessee representative Mike Stewart, a Democrat, in his introduction of a bill to shutter the school, K12's CEO received $3.9 million in compensation last year and $5 million the year before. The school, which has about 3,200 students, is slated to receive $7.5 million in state funding this year. Stewart's bill was blocked by state Republicans, as was an attempt to limit Tennessee Virtual Academy's enrollment to 5,000.
In any case, underperforming schools are nothing new, and the troubles at K12 aren't indicative of widespread issues at online academies in general. There are plenty of success stories, and people pushing for MOOCs and for-profit public schools have already changed the way we think about our education system, which was sorely needed. But the case is important as online schooling and privatization of classrooms continues to gain steam.
While it is important for us to do something about our school system, as the system is pretty much terrible at the moment, it's also important to not assume that new course models are infallible. And as K12 shows, even if you try to tie a for-profit school's funding to academic performance, it's key to make sure that test scores are legitimate (and the tests too, I suppose). The interplay between academic and business performance aside, the goal is supposed to be making sure kids are learning, and it's important we don't lose sight of that.