“15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell”: an inside look at K12 Inc.

by David Safier

This is simply chilling. A teacher who spent a year teaching in one of K12 Inc.'s online charter school tells all in an Edweek blog post, 15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell: A Teacher's Tale. Since Education Week is subscription only, I don't know if non-subscribers can read it (Will someone tell me in the comments please?), so I'll give you a taste of the bitter gall in the story.

Darcy Bedortha is a teacher who decided to give online education a try at one of the K12 Inc. schools (she doesn't say which one). "I became a teacher because I am an advocate for youth and social justice," she writes, but she soon found that wasn't her role. It was to manage and unmanageable number of online students, keep them from leaving and recruit new students.

Darcy taught high school English. One day a week, she had "blackboard sessions" with her classes. About 10% of the students logged on. Students enrolled and dropped out regularly, meaning they were working on a whole assortment of projects and assignments she had to oversee — 30 separate courses at one point.

My first month of teaching exhausted me, and there was never a moment in 15 months to catch my breath (many of us taught summer school, with no extra compensation, per employment agreement). Teachers are responsible for setting up courses, due dates, course pathways, etc. in connection to an extensive and ever-changing digital curriculum which is fraught with technical glitches and system-level errors. Teachers are also required to be available to students during the day, late into the evening and on weekends. In addition, they must contribute to "special projects".

At one point, when a colleague took an unexpected leave, Darcy had a 476 student classload. A normal classload was 300 students or more.

She learned early on that marketing was at least as much part of a teacher's job as teaching.

In my experience, the conversation was never about how our students were struggling, how we could support those who were trying to learn the English Language, how we could support those who were homeless or how we could support those with special needs. . . . [It] was marketing: how to get more children enrolled, how to reach more families, how to be sure they were pre-registered for next year, how to get Facebook pages and other marketing information "pushed out" to students.

Marketing was geared at poor communities and marginal students, many of whom were at risk and in need of human contact and support.

The majority of students at the school are the kinds of kids whose histories and current realities cause concerned adults to keep eyes open for signs of trauma, those that haunt the dreams of educators and social workers. My students were survivors – of suicide attempts, of bullying, of abuse, of neglect, of the attempted suicides of siblings or best-friends or boyfriends. Some of them battle addictions and destructive habits; some self-harm, isolate themselves, or even run away.

I was an English teacher, so my students would write. They wrote of pain and fear and of not fitting in. They were the kinds of young people who desperately needed to have the protective circle of a community watching over them. They needed one healthy person to smile at them and recognize them by name every day, to say "I'm glad you're here!"  Many of my former students do not have that.

Her school had 303 students enrolled in special education programs who teachers were somehow supposed to help online — how, I don't know. "259 of them were failing while 17 had no grade at all." She had students who weren't native English speakers, some of whom had parents who spoke no English. How anyone can teach students like that online with a very limited opportunity to talk with them directly and no face-to-face interaction is a mystery to me.

Part of me hopes this story is a hoax, that someone made up Darcy Bedortha and created a narrative based on what can be found in news articles, because I don't want to believe it's as bad as she makes it sound. But I doubt it. I've read the damning articles, and I've also carried on email discussions with former K12 Inc. teachers in various parts of the country, and their stories, though not quite as dire, are similar to Darcy's.

The profit making, publicly traded K12 Inc. is driven by the need to satisfy its stockholders. Its CEO, Ron Packard, wants to keep making his $5 million-and-more yearly salary. The only way to stay profitable is to recruit as many students as possible regardless of their suitability for online learning and to keep them on the rolls as long as possible, even if they rarely log on or complete assignments. It's profits first, students last.

UPDATE: This just in. K12 Inc. CEO Ron Packard has stepped down to start a new company connected to K12 Inc. It looks like the idea is to take K12 global.

2 responses to ““15 Months in Virtual Charter Hell”: an inside look at K12 Inc.

  1. David Safier

    Thanks for the comment. For those who haven’t heard of it, Insight Schools are a new K12 Inc. venture targeted specifically at low achieving students who are potential dropouts. We have one here in Arizona, along with Arizona Virtual Academy.

    If you want to see how blatant K12 Inc.’s heavy-handed recruiting tactics are, read a post about my filling out a five question online questionnaire for Insight. I answered No to 3 out of 5 statements, only answering Yes to the statements, “Sometimes I like one-on-one attention” and “I need to spend more time on certain subjects.” Based on my answers, I was informed, “Insight Schools may be a good fit for you” and was given a number where I could “Contact an Enrollment Adviser today.” http://www.blogforarizona.com/blog/2013/09/k12-inc-says-i-may-be-a-good-fit-for-one-of-its-schools.html

  2. I read her story and I’m 99% sure she worked for K12 in Oregon. I personally know several of the big players in Insight of Oregon, a K12 school, and it’s a joke. At least one of the administrators is a woman who was only a brick and mortar teacher for a few years, was fired and could not get a job teaching. Students known to my kids (more than 1) who were flunking out of high school switched to Insight of Oregon and miraculously started getting straight A’s. Hmmm. Real education? I think not.

    Personally, I hope K12 goes down in flames and the people who knowingly make it possible for places like them to syphon money off of public schools who are already underfunded burn in hell. America has enough problems with education without a-holes like this stealing tax money.