Cyberschools have not shown results worthy of having them thought of as being a replacement for traditional schools, Cook says. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Michigan citizens have a big decision to make: Should the primary purpose of public education be to prepare our kids for college and the workplace, or to increase profits for big corporations?
As funding for neighborhood schools has been slashed, the push for cyberschools has increased — an increase that cannot be justified based on results. Perhaps politics can help explain the expansion, as there’s more money to be made for corporations and campaign contributors.
The poor academic performance of cyberschools is startling. One recent study of Pennsylvania cyberschools, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, found that students enrolled in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. A 2010 study by the University of Colorado found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit companies met the minimum progress standards required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, compared with 55 percent of brick-and-mortar schools.
Whether it is charter schools or cyberschools, the vast majority of for-profit experiments in public education have resulted in lower student achievement than traditional public schools.
Why is it that the for-profit model seems to fail in helping students achieve academic success?
The answer is simple. The profit motive takes precedence over educational outcomes. The top priority of these companies is to make as much as money possible. Student academic success is secondary.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of a company called K12 Inc.
K12 Inc. provides both online courses to school districts and runs its own cyberschools. The company has marketed its product with television ads while flooding targeted school districts with yard signs.
Along with aggressive marketing tactics, K12 Inc. has specifically targeted at-risk students as potential customers — exactly the type of student who needs a real teacher in an actual classroom providing hands-on attention.
Targeting at-risk students — the vast majority of whom lack strong parental involvement and are not highly self-motivated — has yielded a huge customer pool for K12 Inc. It has also resulted in incredibly high dropout rates.
That high dropout rate is only one troubling aspect of the company’s business practices.
In addition to maximizing its profits by focusing its enrollment efforts on students bound to fail and drop out, K12 Inc. has extremely high teacher-to-student ratios. Since teachers cost money, the company has found it more profitable to dump an unmanageable number of students (at-risk students who require more time and attention) on a single teacher, rather than hire more teachers. A recent report on National Public Radio cited K-12, Inc. as having as many as 275 students per teacher.
High dropout rates, low student test scores, high staff turnover and too many students per teacher — that is a recipe for failure.
But is K12 Inc. a failure? Not if you measure success by its profit margin, as the company’s leaders do.
The push to pour tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into cyberschools is creating huge profits for cyberschool companies while failing to provide an adequate education for Michigan students.
The vast majority of parents who are satisfied with their “real” schools — those in their neighborhood with real buildings, real classrooms and real teachers — may not see the danger in the ever-increasing prevalence of these virtual schools.
That is, until they realize that the funding siphoned out of the education budget and into the corporate pocketbooks of cyberschool companies is draining more and more money out of their neighborhood schools and ultimately harming their children.
Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.