Grading K12, America's Virtual Middle School Classroom

The future of primary education looks an awful like watching infomercials on your computer. Picture tweeners and teenage students, alone, in the glow of a laptop screen, running K12, the country's largest online school program, clicking through lessons and tests. If they have a question, they place a call. Teachers are standing by! (Seriously.)

The idea of a for-profit virtual middle school, like K12 with its 81,000 students nationwide and $21 million in profit, is either exhilarating or horrifying to you. The statistics validate both reactions. On the one hand, technology is finally having its day in education, a place where costs have outstripped results and productivity gains have fallen behind most U.S. industries that embraced efficiencies and scale. If state and local governments want to give the best education to the higher number of students at the lowest reasonable cost, fewer quality teachers using simulated lesson plans might be a smart road. But the K12 road is a bumpy ride. Three quarters of K12 schools failed to show sufficient progress on federal proficiency benchmarks, compared with 45 percent of brick-and-mortar charter schools, according to one study.

K12's results are "just shocking," says Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor, one of the study's authors.

In part, this is a reflection of the backgrounds of K12's students, who tend to be poor and struggling academically, says Packard. The company is growing so fast that more than half its students are new each year, meaning they may take state tests five months after first enrolling, before they've had a chance to benefit from K12 teaching, he says. More than 90 percent achieved proficiency on state tests after seven years with K12, according to company literature. He adds that K12 has invested more than $200 million in technology and curriculum and that the company's schools, which collect money on a per-pupil basis, receive on average only 60 percent of a traditional district's allotment, which saves taxpayers' money. 

Still, it's a difficult sell to some education scholars. "The enthusiasts for cyber learning have overstated the potential," says Tom Loveless, an education researcher at the Brookings Institution who did paid consulting for K12 in its early years. "What they keep forgetting is we're not talking about college students here. We're talking about high schoolers and young kids. The idea that parents go to work and leave their kids in front of a computer--it's absurd."

Read the full story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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