A second-semester senior named Brianna (name changed for privacy reasons) asked me if she could take her online class in my room after school. She needed to take one semester of American History to graduate, and the school had set her up with an online course…I said, “Ok!”
Over the ensuing weeks, she sat in silence while staring at her screen, looking very much like she would rather be anywhere else. Over the weeks, I observed her method of “learning”: mindlessly speeding through the slideshows, taking the quizzes, searching for the answers directly on Google, and plugging them in. She failed the quizzes repeatedly because authentic learning was not happening, and she continually tried fruitlessly to scour the internet for a community of others that could help her.
Quickly, the teacher in me knew I had to intervene in order to help her. I was horrified by the online course: it lacked the very basics in engagement and interest; there was no opportunity for interaction with teacher nor other students in the class. Worse, this class was not written for students like Brianna, a hard-working yet struggling student from the Eastside of Detroit. There was no opportunity for help on the website.
The digital class stripped learning of the urban teaching best practices I had learned (engagement, support, relationships, opportunity for student collaboration and autonomy) and created a “check-box” product. Brianna constantly remarked on what percentage of the class she had completed. Despite her (and my) best efforts, she had no chance of passing the class (happy ending: she ended up finding alternate means to get the course credit and graduated!).
Regardless, it was clear that online education failed Brianna. The sad reality that I have since learned is that hundreds of thousands of children nationwide are going to school full-time in online charter schools. These students are also being failed.
Online education in the K-12 sphere is a growing trend- as of 2015, there were some 275,000 students enrolled in online charter schools. In my home state of Michigan, from 2010 to 2014, the number of students in Online Charter Schools increased from 718 students to 7,934 students (over 1000% increase).
Private, for-profit companies (using public funds) are cashing in- the two largest online charter companies, K12 and Connections Academy, are raking in an estimated $1 billion per year (as of 2014). The motive is profit over substance: less operating costs, less teachers, and less building maintenance.
The results have been damning: according a study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CREDO), students in online charters lost an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math IN THE COURSE OF AN 180-DAY SCHOOL YEAR. They could have had equal math progress if they had spent the entire year asleep.
In Philadelphia, a system composed of mainly poverty-stricken Black and Latinx students, online schools educated more than one-third of students as of 2014 . The kicker is that, between 2011 and 2014, 100% of those students failed their state achievement tests. 100%!!! .
Students in online charter schools are losing out on their education. Period.
But it goes deeper than just test scores in math and reading: what else are students who spend their educational experience alone behind a screen missing out on?
Public school is meant to provide positive socialization to peers, mentorship from responsible adults, an opportunity to thrive in extracurricular passions, and an acclimation to our society. Online charters do not give students these enriching opportunities. What about tactile and interactive learning that goes on during gym, recess, music, art, video production, journalism, and engineering? What about group interaction or public speaking opportunities? Online learning focuses on simply checking the boxes: low-level tasks, rote memorization, and testing…alone…without the aid of professional teachers nor peer interaction.
Few educators would endorse this obviously terrible idea- horrible in theory, inefficient in practice. My mind instantly said that this is the work of politicians that were jumping for joy over the possibility of cutting school funding costs while screwing over the teachers’ unions. Sure enough, the more I dug into where the idea for K-12 students to go to online schools, the more it led back to a list of Wall Street profiteers and right-wing politicians: Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos, Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Michael “Gordon Gekko” Milken, and John Kasich among them.
Republicans Love Bad Online Schools
Noliwe Rooks’ book “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education” chronicles the root of the online schools epidemic: for-profit corporations with the help of some familiar names in American politics.
Our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire with no experience going to or working in public schools, is a huge fan of virtual schools. In an interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos said that virtual schools allow “all parents, regardless of their zip code, to have the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children” . Obviously, common sense and the data disagree with her. Groups that she has created and funded include the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, and these groups have successfully lobbied politicians for the expansion of online schools as “vital educational options” . Betsy DeVos has proven repeatedly that she does not have an ideology that is good for our children- the underperforming and dehumanizing online charter schools reinforce that.
Former Republican Governor Jeb Bush is another parent of the online school industry. After leaving the governorship, Bush created initiatives and organizations including Digital Learning Now, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and the Digital Learning Council, which have all encouraged and incentivized the proliferation of the online school industry . Bush’s ‘Digital Learning Council,’ made up of elected officials and online school executives, lobbied hard and wrote pro-virtual school legislation for the state of Maine; this led to other states such as Utah, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin to open up public funds for online schools . When Republican governor John Kasich signed a bill to allow cyber schools to utilize public funds, Jeb Bush is quoted as saying, “more students in the Buckeye State will have the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential . Only if you ignore statistics and common sense, Jeb.
Another forefather of garbage online charter schools is Michael Milken, better known as the inspiration for the character ‘Gordon Gekko’ from the 1987 movie, Wall Street. If this does not make it obvious that online charter schools are more concerned with money than kids, I do not know what will. After being released from prison in the 1990s for securities fraud, Milken co-created the for-profit online school company ‘K12 Inc.’ K12 is one of the largest distributors of online education, and they have spent $10 million buying off politicians through lobbying and campaign contributions in 26 states over the last decade. In 2012, K12 Inc. settled a federal lawsuit for $6.8 million for inflating stock prices by misleading investors with false student-performance data, and in 2016, they paid $168.5 million to the state of California for false claims and false advertising . However, Milken has enriched himself from online schools to the tune of $2.5 billion, almost all money from his contracts with public schools . We need to keep Gordon Gekko and the greed of Wall Street away from our children.
Unpopular Republican governor Rick Snyder of Michigan once read the book “Memoirs of a Goldfish” to young children online through the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy. He decided to lift the cap for virtual schools, and this proved to be a terrible idea because online charter schools received just as much money for each student as a brick-and-mortar school despite not having nearly as many operating costs…this gave a ripe opportunity for profiteers to gain money off of the backs of students while providing subpar a education to them. He has since sang a different tune, as he recently proposed to cut funding of online schools by 25%. How about a 100% cut for these trash schools, Rick?
A Call for Something Greater
Famed education scholar John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself .
If that is the case, then what is life for a student in an online charter school? Life is solitary and quiet- there is no laughter. There are no professional teachers or mentors to physically check in- furthermore, there is constant distraction on the technology that the student is already spending too much time on.
School for the online charter school student exists just a click away from the dangerous bowels of the internet and the flashy allure of mindless games, distracting videos, and addicting social media. How can we seriously ask young kids to control their impulses around such ubiquitous distraction?
Perhaps many working adults have accepted the placid ‘9-5’ lifestyle of being on a computer all day alone. Despite what corporate America calls for in its quest to maximize profits with little thought of de-humanizing workers, we in education should still strive for higher.
Learning, and thus school, should be fun- it should be interactive- it should sometimes allow you to go out of your comfort zone- and you should experience it with others. Learning should be active- it should not be boxed within a screen nor even a room. Learning should be complicated and nuanced, and it should deal with real world problems that cannot be simulated by a software program. True learning involves failure, and it also involves unbreakable relationships. Learning is inspired by professional teachers and mentors, and it is reinforced by activities such as sports or theatre. Learning should involve the best that technology can give us, but learning can not occur if technology is the be-all and end-all of a childhood.
Furthermore, the data are clear: social interactions matter. Studies consistently show that individuals with low levels of social interactions have a litany of health problems (physical and mental) and increased chances of early mortality . But did we need data to tell us this? In the most caveman-visceral human sense, it simply feels good to have healthy relationships and people to lean on. Why are online charter schools gearing increasing amounts of young people for solitude and a severe lack of socialization? (while not even helping raise test scores) It is time to walk back the awful decisions of Republicans such as Betsy DeVos, Jeb Bush, and Rick Snyder to hand public funds to ‘Gordon Gekko’ and his Wall Street friends. The time has come to end public funding for online charter schools once and for all- our collective future depends on it.