Online charter outsourced student essays

Idaho’s largest virtual charter school, with approximately 3,500 students, has outsourced student essays to India for review in the grading process.

The revelation that K12 Inc., the world’s largest online charter school provider, sent thousands of student essays overseas was revealed back in 2008 by Arizona blogger David Safier.  But it wasn’t until September 2013 that K12 verified at least one Idaho charter school was also involved.  After being pressed, K12 admitted that Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA), Idaho’s largest virtual school and operated by K12 Inc., had outsourced student essays.

“This was a pilot program offered by K12 to give teachers additional support,” said K12 spokesperson Jeff Kwitowski in an email.  “Reviewers provided initial feedback, but teachers assigned grades.  Teachers could use the service at their discretion.  It was used by some schools, including IDVA, until the pilot was discontinued.”[ii]

Records I have obtained indicate that between August and December 2007 IDVA outsourced over 3,000 essays to India.[iii]  A Sept. 10, 2008, Education Week article reveals K12 eventually settled into a business relationship with TutorVista, a tutoring service in Bangalore, India.[iv]  In so doing, IDVA may have violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which protects student work and private information.[v]

K12’s “pilot” project highlights an important issue within for-profit charter schools:  adequate oversight.  Private companies like K12 are not subject to open meetings laws or public records requests.[vi]  Ironically, K12’s website claims, “We must foster a culture of professionalism, service, transparency, accountability….”[vii]  Difficult to hold a company’s board of directors, CEO’s and shareholders to this standard when their business practices, products and services are considered “proprietary.”[viii]  There is no reason to believe the “pilot” project would have ever been discontinued had an investigator not unearthed the practice and dragged it into the sunlight of parental scrutiny.[ix]  The IRS is also investigating.[x]

There’s more.  IDVA’s 2013 Annual Update also reveals that, “There appears to be potential for conflicts of interest to result from IDVA’s administration and management staff being K12 employees.”[xi]  And, in a 2012 study by Western Michigan University, 27% of K12’s schools in 2010-11 reported making adequately yearly progress, compared to 52% for brick-and-mortar schools.[xii]  Perhaps K12, which donated 44K to Superintendent Tom Luna’s 2010 campaign,[xiii] shouldn’t also get transportation costs for “bring(ing) the school to the children.”[xiv]

Kase Capital hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, also co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform, eviscerates K12’s business practices.  Tilson reminds us that online schools are good for children who need flexible schedules, or who have highly involved parents, but they are not for everyone.  He exposes K12’s aggressive recruiting tactics to enroll at-risk and special education students, often from poor, single-parent households where the parent has little time to be the requisite “parent coach.”[xv]

Jeff Shaw, former Head of School of K-12-run Ohio Virtual Academy told Tilson, “After the IPO, I got discouraged because the company’s priority seemed to shift from academics to growth….  Eventually, it seemed as though K12’s enrollment strategy was to cast a wide net into the sea of school choice and keep whatever they caught regardless if the catch was appropriate for virtual learning or not.”[xvi]

One former English teacher from Pennsylvania’s Agora Cyber Charter School (2010-12) said of K12, “There was no teacher-to-student ratio.  When I started, I was assigned 300 students, which was very, very overwhelming. I would try to read each of the essays students turned in … but I was really struggling with that. I couldn’t keep up. I was told to skim over the papers and grade with a rubric.”[xvii]

K12 CEO Ron Packard says, “It’s just K12’s culture.”[xviii]



1 Safier, David. (2012, February 20). “Setting the record straight about K12 Inc. outsourcing student essays to India.” BlogforArizona. Retrieved from http://www.blogforarizona.com/blog/2012/02/setting-the-record-straight-about-k12-inc-outsourcing-student-essays-to-india.html

[ii] Kwitkowski, Jeff. (2013, September 20). Personal email.

[iii] Private K12 documents.

[iv] Trotter, Andrew. (2008, September 10).  “K12 Inc. Scraps India Outsourcing.” Education Week.  Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/09/10/03outsource.h28.html

[v] U.S. Department of Education. (2013, September 27).  “Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).”  Ed.Gov.  Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html

[vi] Idaho Public Television.  “Open Idaho.”  Retrieved from http://idahoptv.org/dialogue/openidaho/help.cfm

[vii] Davis, Nate.  (2013, March 4).  “An Open Letter from Nate Davis, Executive Chairman, K12 Inc.”  Retrieved from http://www.k12.com/nate-davis-open-letter#.UkZcCoZvPB8

[viii] Parker, Christina L & Jeff Kwitowski.  (2013, August 29).  “News Release: K12 Inc. Reports Full Fiscal Year 2013 Results.”  Retrieved from http://investors.k12.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=214389&p=irol-newsArticle&id=1850567

[ix] Safier, David.  (2008, August 7).  “AZ Online Charter School Outsources Education.”  BlogforArizona.  Retrieved from http://arizona.typepad.com/blog/2008/08/az-online-chart.html

[x] Hall, Eric & H. Mahaffey.  (2012, June 18).  “Increased Scrutiny of Charter Schools Operated by For-Profit Management Companies.”  Lewis Roca RothGerber Law.  Retrieved from http://www.lrrlaw.com/increased-irs-scrutiny-of-charter-schools-operated-by-for-profit-management-companies-06-18-2012/#.UkZv8oZvPB8

[xi] Idaho Public Charter School Commission.  (2013, April 11).  “IDVA Annual Update.”  Retrieved from http://chartercommission.idaho.gov/meetings/archive/2013/04_11_13/D6%20IDVA%20Update.pdf

[xii] Miron, Gary & Jessica L. Urschel.  (2012, July).  “A Study of Student Characteristics, School Finance and School Performance in Schools Operated by K12 Inc.”  National Education Policy Center.  Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/nepc-rb-k12-miron.pdf

[xiii] Popkey, Dan.  (2012, February 2).  “Luna’s friend, K12 CEO Ron Packard, faces class-action suit alleging misstatesments on student performance.”  Idaho Statesman Blogs.  Retrieved from http://voices.idahostatesman.com/2012/02/02/idahopolitics/lunas_friend_k12_ceo_ron_packard_faces_classaction_shareholder_l

[xiv] Woodard, Colin.  (2012, September 2).  “Virtual Schools Have Questionable Records.”  Morning Sentinel.  Retrieved from http://www.onlinesentinel.com/news/questionable-record_2012-09-01.html

[xv] Tilson, Whitney.  (2013, September 22).  “An Analysis of K12 and Why It Is My Largest Short Position.”  Seeking Alpha.  Retrieved from http://seekingalpha.com/article/1707192-an-analysis-of-k12-and-why-it-is-my-largest-short-position?source=email_rt_article_readmore

[xvi] ibid

[xvii] ibid

[xviii] Tilson, Whitney.  (2013, September 17).  Powerpoint, slide number 27.  Presentation given at 9th Annual Spring Value Investing Congress.  Retrieved from http://www.tilsonfunds.com/K12-Tilson-9-17-13.pdf

 

  • Adam Collins

    Excellent article! Once again, the proof of the inadequacy of for-profit schools, and charter schools in general is displayed. The fact that their existence in Idaho is largely due to their payoff to Tom Luna only highlights the degree of corruption evident in the State Department of Education.

  • Scott Nicholson

    Good article. I really think there is a role for private, charter, & public schools. But the backbone of the system is the public school system as it is the best life line we throw all of our citizens so regardless of their financial / social circumstances, they can better themselves. We cannot have private & charter schools at the expense of public schools, but to supplement the whole educational process.

  • http://EnoughIsEnoughIdaho Russell Joki

    It should not surprise anyone that the mantra “Buy Idaho!” spoken so eloquently by Governor Otter, other elected state leaders and Idaho business leaders is a sham.

  • http://fortboise.org/blog/ Tom von Alten

    Thank you for this reporting. The “outsourcing of essays” is a bit of a strange ellipsis, but I gather it was the review of essays that was being outsourced, whatever that might constitute. The teachers still nominally grade them, and it doesn’t like they do it well, but we don’t know. We also are left to guess what “grade with a rubric” might mean, from a hearsay anecdote posted on an investment site.

    Sounds like there are plenty of bad practices to cover; maybe it would work better to spread the coverage over multiple articles, rather than cover everything in one.

  • Travis Manning

    Tom,

    You are precisely correct that I should have written several pieces on this subject. I end-noted this piece heavily with the hopes that a few journalists will dig into the nuts and bolts of K12 Inc.’s poor behavior and ineffective biz model in the education world, let alone the for-profit education sector, because their lackluster performance bilks taxpayers of hard-earned funds, not to mention their disservice to tens of thousands of kids who don’t have the adult support to complete K12′s online curriculum. K12′s curriculum has a decent reputation, but their biz practices, and many issues I mention and allude to above, are ineffective for many student population sub groups.

  • http://arizona.typepad.com/blog/ David Safier

    K12 Inc.’s stock prices took a nasty fall Wednesday, 9/9, from $28.59 to $17.60 — almost 40%. The reason is, earnings were lower than projected based on enrollment that was lower than expected. This is a perfect demonstration of the flaw in the for-profit education model. K12 has to keep growing, which means continual recruiting of students, whether they’re suited for online education or not. And since one-third of the students leave every year, K12 has a lot of recruitment to do just to stay even, let alone to grow enough to keep the stockholders happy.

  • Kevin S. Wilson

    In its March 2013 report “Policy Differences Between Charter and Traditional Schools,” the nonpartisan Idaho Office of Performance Evaluations reminds us that when charter schools were first proposed in Idaho (in 1997) “public education stakeholders including the business community, teachers, school districts, and the Legislature were supportive of the potential for innovation.” The report also notes that legislation allowing charter schools in Idaho was passed with the explicitly stated intent of increasing “learning opportunities for ALL students [emphasis added], with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students” and with the intent of including in instruction “the use of different and innovative teaching methods.” In other words, charter schools were intended, in part, to serve as incubators of innovation and as laboratories for the development of best pedagogical practices, with that innovation and those best practices to be shared with all Idaho schools to benefit all Idaho students, not just those enrolled in charter schools.

    So how can a for-profit corporation like K12, Inc. or Connections Academy possibly deliver on this legislative intent? The curriculum developed by both corporations is their intellectual property, protected by copyright. Their pedagogical practices can likewise be considered trade secrets. What possible incentive can such for-profit corporations have for sharing their innovative methods, their effective curricular materials, and their best practices in pedagogy?

    Of course, it’s a naive notion to expect for-profit education corporations to share with others for the greater good of all students. Why should they? There is no transparency in their operations and little oversight, and no one really seems to care very much if they help to achieve what the Legislature intended charter schools to achieve.

    Could be worse, I suppose. In Ohio, 10 charter-school boards have been forced to sue White Hat Management, the state’s largest charter-school operator, all the way to the state Supreme Court just to get White Hat to open up its books so that the schools boards could see what White Hat’s failing schools had spent public money on and to whom it was paid. Now that’s a corporation that should get a grade of “Needs Improvement” when it comes to “Plays Well with Others.”

  • Travis Manning

    It should be noted that Idaho and Arizona were not the only states with K12-run online schools to outsource essays to India. Blogger David Safier includes the following states/online schools:

    Along with Arizona Virtual Academy and Idaho Virtual Academy…

    Agora Cyber Charter School – Pennsylvania
    Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School – Pennsylvania
    California Virtual Academy – California
    Colorado Virtual Academy – Colorado
    Chicago Virtual School – Illinois
    Minnesota Virtual Academy – Minnesota
    Ohio Virtual Academy – Ohio
    Washington Virtual Academies – Washington state

    http://www.blogforarizona.com/blog/2012/02/setting-the-record-straight-about-k12-inc-outsourcing-student-essays-to-india.html

  • http://youngpeoplespavilion.com/ Michael Strickland

    It also matters whether student names or other information was included in the essays. Was a “blind” system used where the work was only identified to the outsiders by a different number on each essay?

  • http://youngpeoplespavilion.com Micahel Strickland

    What information about your child are you comfortable to have shared by their school (which has built in accountability, background checks, chain-of-command, and other checks and balances) with some random company someplace? For example: that essay that your child wrote about you, with their name, yours, siblings, where you live, and other info? Social Security numbers? Grades? What else?

  • Kevin S. Wilson

    The question of whether outsourcing violates FERPA or other privacy laws is, for me, a secondary issue. The more disturbing aspect of this story is what it reveals about K12′s business model and what it says about K12′s understanding of pedagogy. K12 did not outsource grading of essays because doing so improves student learning outcomes. K12 did not outsource grading of essays to help ensure that instructors knew their students and their students’ writing well enough to individualize instruction. K12 did not outsource grading of essays to free instructors for some more meaningful interaction with their students and with their students’ work.

    K12 outsourced the grading of essays to save money and increase its profits. That’s what corporations do.

    K12 outsourced the grading of essays in an attempt to make workable (and profitable) student-to-teacher ratios as high as 250-to-1.

    K12 outsourced the grading of essays because it fits their business model, which is based not on successful learners and attainment of learning objectives, but on growth in enrollment.

    And guess what? You paid for this outsourcing, just as you pay for K12′s multimillion dollar marketing and recruitment campaigns and for CEO Ron Packard’s $5 million per year compensation.

  • http://youngpeoplespavilion.com Michael Strickland

    Thanks.

  • Travis Manning

    Boise State Public Radio ran a news story on this very topic last week, in case you hadn’t seen it.

    http://boisestatepublicradio.org/post/idahos-largest-charter-school-confirms-it-outsourced-student-papers-india