This blog on Texas education contains posts on accountability, testing, K-12 education, postsecondary educational attainment, dropouts, bilingual education, immigration, school finance, environmental issues, Ethnic Studies at state and national levels. It also represents my digital footprint, of life and career, as a community-engaged scholar in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Worse Off Today Than in the Sixties: Who Gives a Damn? By Rodolfo F. Acuña
Who Gives a Damn?
Rodolfo F. Acuña
Teresa Wiltz in America’s Wire writes that despite claims of increased educational opportunities for minorities that the performance of black and Latino teenagers remains the same or lower than 30 years ago. In fact, the math and reading performance of black and Latino high school seniors equal that of 13-year-old white students – so much for the post racial society.
Educators and liberal politicos point the finger at low expectations, inequality of resources, less qualified teachers, the income inequality, teacher bias, and inexperienced teachers. They throw in the tracking of black and brown students into remedial class while whites are put into university bound classes.
Further, minority students are more likely to be given "A’s" for work that would receive a "C" in a rich school giving the illusion that they are being educated. Society would not tolerate this record in a football team at any level, or for that matter if we had fewer weapons of mass destruction than 30 years ago.
However, in my view, the major reason for the lack of progress of Mexican American and other minorities is society’s historical amnesia or more aptly its Alzheimer disorder that erases the memory of previous efforts or commitments to bridge the gap between black, brown and white – rich and poor.
The truth be told, educators pay less attention today to Mexican Americans than it did 50 years ago. In the sixties educators and reporters at least talked about it. The late Los Angeles Times’ columnist Ruben Salazar attacked the dropout problem and the failure of the schools to devise a relevant curriculum, as well as the failure to recruit and train effective Mexican American teachers.
In February 1963, Salazar began a series on Mexican American education. He titled his first article, “What Causes Jose's Trouble in School?: Mexican-Americans Problems Analyzed.” Salazar begins,
Kicked out of school, Jose Mendez at 16 has been trapped in a peculiar twilight zone of American life. They tested him, graded him and pigeonholed him...say some educators, the fault may lie in the tests and the teachers –not in Jose. Educational policy and curriculum are oriented towards the education of the middle-class, monolingual, monocultural English-speaking student … [Jose] is at a great disadvantage…[he] is a hyphenated American, a Mexican-American … he is culturally confused.
Salazar interviewed educators, Drs. George I. Sánchez, Paul Sheldon, Julian Samora and high school teacher Marcos de Leon on why José was dropping out of school. They attributed the dropout problem to the Mexican American’s inferiority complex, which has intensified his marginalization.
Salazar blamed the schools for the Mexican Americans failure. Schools nurtured a negative self-image, which was reinforced by the movies and literature, and failed to correct the stereotyping of poor Mexicans. It was a vicious cycle: the schools did think Mexicans could not learn, students developed a low esteem, they failed and dropped out.
The experts advocated bilingual-bicultural education, and initially there was a consensus for these programs, from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Republican St. Ronald Reagan. Yet, the Greek Chorus gained traction and labeled the programs separatist, un-American and racist. This nativist movement allied itself with right wing thinks tanks and foundations, and by the beginning of the 21st century, bilingual ed died a violent death.
By and large educators were mute as bilingual programs were wiped out and university based teacher training programs specializing on Mexican Americans were eliminated. At teacher training institutions grade point average was favored over knowledge of the child’s background. Although Latinos comprised 75 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, student teachers were given minimal preparation on how to teach Latino students.
The dropout was one of the major reasons for the development of Chicano Studies in 1969. A solution was sought for the high dropout problem that was overexposing Latino students to a life of poverty and not incidentally to the Vietnam draft. One of my first books Cultures in Conflict: Case Studies of the Mexican American was written for fifth graders. The purpose was to build a positive image in order to facilitate the acquisition of skills. These skills would prepare students to enter which ever field they wanted.
The importance of self-image is common sense. I remember looking for engineering computer lab with my future wife at UCLA in the 1980s. We asked several students if they knew where the computer lab was. They all gave us blank looks. Finally, we asked a Latino student who told us to ask an Asian. We did and she told us where it was. Talking to Asian fiends they told me that they exceled in math because the teachers expected them to.
Looking back at my own life, I was fortunate that I ended up in a Jesuit high school where I had to take four years of Latin. My relatives would notice my Latin book on the table, would ask my mother who it belonged to, and they would remark that Rudy must be smart. In contrast, in the first grade, before I knew English, I was pushed out of public school as mentally retarded.
When I became smart, that is adhered to their rules, anytime a Mexican student would act up, other teachers would ask me why? When I told them, they generally did not like the answer. They thought I was flip when I said that my solution for the marginalization of Mexicans was to rewrite the bible and substitute the word Mexican for Israeli. In a couple of decades, Mexicans would start looking at themselves as the “chosen people.”
This identity has helped Jews survive and endure over 2,000 years of persecution. In my view it comes down to self-image.
This was the premise of the Tucson Unified School District’s program. It was the repairing the damage done by marginalization – of being written out of history. The thinking was that learning history, literature and the arts though their viewpoint would repair the image of the greaser, the loser and the numerous other stereotypes.
From the beginning, the xenophobes tried to send the Mexican American Studies program down the same path as bilingual education. It was unpatriotic to learn any language other than English, it was un-American to learn history other than the American way.
The reasoning ignored the past; it was as if the debates of the sixties and seventies never occurred. They disregarded pedagogical principles that even St. Ronald accepted.
One of the books banned in Tucson was Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was based on a highly successful literacy campaign conducted in Brazil. The xenophobes’ main argument is that Freire was a Marxist, which is ridiculous since the pedagogy goes back to Socrates. With that aside, would we cast aside a cure for cancer because the researcher was a Marxist?
The Cambium Learning Corp’s Curriculum Audit of the Tucson Mexican American Studies Department which was commissioned by Arizona Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal and cost the $177,000 concluded,
No observable evidence exists that instruction within Mexican American Studies Department promotes resentment towards a race or class of people. The auditors observed the opposite, as students are taught to be accepting of multiple ethnicities of people. MASD teachers are teaching Cesar Chavez alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, all as peaceful protesters who sacrificed for people and ideas they believed in. Additionally, all ethnicities are welcomed into the program and these very students of multiple backgrounds are being inspired and taught in the same manner as Mexican American students. All evidence points to peace as the essence for program teachings. Resentment does not exist in the context of these courses observable evidence exists that instruction within Mexican American Studies Department promotes resentment towards a race or class of people … No evidence as seen by the auditors exists to indicate that instruction within Mexican American Studies Department program classes advocates ethnic solidarity; rather it has been proven to treat student as individuals
There has not been any credible proof to refute claims that the program has improved chances of graduation, improved the students’ self-images, and motivated them to pursue a higher education.
A society that has historical dementia or Alzheimers cannot correct the defects of the present just like it cannot correct racism, sexism or homophobia.
Stupidity and fanaticism led to the destruction of the most transformative movement in Latin American, Liberation Theology. The forces of reaction in order to protect the large landowners redbaited Liberation Theology and substituted a reactionary evangelical Christian movement that promised that their reward would come in the next world. So it is in Arizona.
With the destruction of Mexican American Studies and the banning of the books, Mexican Americans are being put in their place. Vicariously, they are burning the infidels. The difference is that students are fighting back! They are reading books and will remember that anybody can learn. It is their right.
SUNY Board supporting NY’s DREAM Act
The DREAM Act would provide an educational path for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents. Currently, these immigrants are allowed to enroll in New York's public higher education system and can pay in-state tuition rates as long as they graduated from a New York state high school. However, they are not allowed to receive state aid, including the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP.
"All New Yorkers, regardless of legal status, should be eligible to receive state financial aid benefits and in-state tuition rates as they pursue a college education," said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher. "The concept of the DREAM Act is a noble one and we will work with elected officials and our colleagues in higher education to ensure that that it is upheld in New York state."
This resolution, although not in support of a specific piece of legislation, comes amidst growing support for similar immigrant education reform around the country.
Grissom: Bilingual education is the next step for the education system - Iowa State Daily: Opinion
At the beginning of my junior year of high school, I became acquainted with two foreign exchange students from Serbia through the drama program. For three months of after-school practice, I listened to them rehearse their lines with foreign accents and speak to each other in their native language and was, I hate to admit, fascinated. As a high schooler from the Midwest, I had very little experience with people from other countries. It was upon getting to know those people I began to realize how small my own personal world really was in comparison to the one I had yet to see.
The point of this little story is to show how many young people, not even just those from the Midwest, can grow up ignorant of the wide variety of people and cultures that exists beyond where they grew up. Of course, the United States has areas that are higher in diversity than others, but many still do not grow up to fully appreciate a culture other than their own. Sometimes it is difficult to find connections with other cultures, whether they live in the same city as you or not. But there is one link that can at the very least serve as a building block in connecting multiple cultures: language.
Schools in other countries recognize the importance of knowing more than one language and teach their students to be bilingual from a very young age. It is considered almost necessary to learn English, but it is also helpful, and normal, to learn other languages as well. One of my friends from Serbia spoke English, Serbian, French and picked up the basics of Spanish quickly when she studied it in the United States. She also told me she wanted the next language she learned to be German and that she would begin studying when she got home, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
In most schools in the United States, learning a language is considered upper level learning and not taught until late middle school, with the exception of Spanish numbers and letters that may be taught in elementary schools. This philosophy usually does not work. The "critical period hypothesis" says that there is a certain age range (somewhere between 3 and 7) where children are able to learn a language through mere exposure and the result is native-like fluency. But once the critical age range has been passed, this ability fades. Because of this reason, schools should begin to teach foreign language to their students through exposure in early elementary school. Learning a second language at a young age will be easier for the student and, therefore, less of a chore as they try to advance their knowledge of the language when they grow older.
Knowing a foreign language has many benefits. The curriculum of language learning typically involves lessons on culture as well, allowing the student to relate better to a person who is from another part of the world. Being able to create this cross-cultural connection is important later on in life as well when that student joins the workforce. As I mentioned previously, the rise in technology has created the ability to connect with people across the globe. By being able to speak a foreign language natively, not sparingly, Americans will be better equipped to compete in today’s global economy. Bilingual education is a characteristic that should be widespread in the United States’ education system. Learning a foreign language is no longer a hobby, but an essential building block for cross-cultural connections in today’s world. If taught early, children will not struggle with mastering a foreign language but will be able to confidently compete in a global economy.
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Obama Proposes New Race to Top Aimed at Higher Education
By Michele McNeil on January 27, 2012 9:08 AM
The White House wants another Race to the Top competition for states, this time aimed at making higher education cheaper and better.
President Barack Obama's plan, which he is fleshed out in a speech at the University of Michigan this morning, would create a new, $1 billion version of his signature Race to the Top competition for states to improve their higher education systems.
To snag the grants, states would have to smooth the transition between K-12 and college education by aligning entrance and exit standards between the two systems. That proposal would appear to build on an incentive in the original, $4 billion Race to Top for K-12, which rewarded states for many things, including if they signed onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative—an effort by states to create more uniform, rigorous standards that prepare students for post-secondary education.
That may be a tall order in the current cloudy economic forecast, in which nearly every state has squeezed funding for post-secondary education in recent years.
"We're telling the states, if you can find new ways to bring down the cost of college and make it easier for more students to graduate, we'll help you do it," Obama said in his speech. "We will give you additional federal support if you are doing a good job of making sure that all of you aren't loaded up with debt when you graduate from college. And states would have to maintain adequate levels of funding for higher education."
Obama is also calling on Congress to rework federal, school-based financial aid programs, including the Perkins Loan program. Right now, that aid is distributed under a formula that rewards schools in part for longevity. Under the change, colleges that keep tuition low and graduate a relatively large share of Pell Grant-eligible students would be rewarded with a larger share of the grants.
"We are putting colleges on notice...you can't assume that you'll just jack up tuition every single year," Obama said. "If you can't stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down. We should push colleges to do better. We should hold them accountable if they don't."
And Obama is proposing a new $55 millon competition that would dole out money to colleges and universities to scale up promising practices in areas including technology and early college preparation. At first blush, that program appears modeled on the Investing in Innovation grant program, which offered similar rewards to schools and non-profits.
The administration is also planning to create a "College Scorecard" to make it easier for students and parents to choose a college they can afford, and that will help advance their career goals. The so-called "shopping sheet" would include post-graduate earnings and employment information, according to published reports.
The proposals would all require congressional approval.
Teacher Unionism Reborn
Friday, January 27, 2012
Arizona's Precious Knowledge: Blockbuster New Film Chronicles Ethnic Studies Battle
“Don’t Get Angry, Get Even” When Do You Start Counting By Rodolfo F. Acuña
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Interactive: Projections for Texas Occupations in 2018
January 19, 2012
When Tom Pauken was appointed chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission in 2008, he said, one thing particularly surprised him: “this notion that everybody needs to go to a four-year university and blue-collar jobs are not as good as ‘knowledge industry’ jobs.”
According to the workforce commission, the occupation expected to add the most jobs in Texas between 2008 and 2018 is fast-food services.
The availability of jobs in Texas has been a point of state pride and was — at least, at one time — a cornerstone of Gov. Rick Perry’s pitch to voters. And as Pauken has eagerly pointed out in public speeches, a significant portion of the state’s job offerings don’t require four years’ worth of tuition, which at Texas’ public universities can set you back an average of more than $26,000.
Pauken is calling for a greater emphasis on the skilled trades - many of which only require up to two years of post-secondary work - throughout the education pipeline.
He made this case at a recent higher-education panel discussion held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based conservative think tank, where he was joined by Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes.
Paredes argued against the de-emphasis on four-year programs. He said that the state’s problem was not of having too many of one type of degree over another, but of needing comprehensive reform. “We need to improve our productivity in all of these areas,” he said of all levels of higher education.
“College is still worth it,” Paredes said. As evidence, he pointed out that people with advanced degrees have lower unemployment rates and most jobs that pay well require some form of post-secondary credential.
But comparing certain jobs may leave some wondering what they got in return for taking on all that student debt.
In 2009, according to workforce commission data, rotary drill operators — a job that primarily requires on-the-job training — could make an average annual wage of more than $72,000 in the Texas oil and gas industry. That’s more than the average wage of a number of professions requiring master’s and doctoral degrees.
“It’s costing us more to educate people,” Pauken told the Tribune. “At the same time, are we educating them for the right fields where the demand is?”
To provide a better sense of what opportunities are out there for present and future job seekers in Texas, we’ve put together the following graphs and database of the workforce commission’s projections.
In the top graphs, you can see the projections for the total jobs by category in 2018, which professions are adding the most jobs and which will experience the most rapid growth.
Below, you can search different professions based on average annual wages, preferred level of education, anticipated growth rate, expected annual job openings and more.
Check out the Graphs on All Occupation Groups in 2018, Occupations Adding Most Jobs, Fastest Growing Occupations
Monday, January 16, 2012
Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System
Posted on Apr 11, 2011
By Chris Hedges
A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.
Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle,” is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.
Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts—those who march to the beat of their own drum—are weeded out.
“Imagine,” said a public school teacher in New York City, who asked that I not use his name, “going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. How is this kind of thing even legal? How are such ‘academies’ accredited? What quality of leader needs a ‘leadership academy’? What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.”
Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work—and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers. How does the country expect to retain dignified, trained professionals under the hostility of current conditions? I suspect that the hedge fund managers behind our charter schools system—whose primary concern is certainly not with education—are delighted to replace real teachers with nonunionized, poorly trained instructors. To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence. And those who do not conform are pushed aside.
“It is extremely dispiriting to realize that you are in effect lying to these kids by insinuating that this diet of corporate reading programs and standardized tests are preparing them for anything,” said this teacher, who feared he would suffer reprisals from school administrators if they knew he was speaking out. “It is even more dispiriting to know that your livelihood depends increasingly on maintaining this lie. You have to ask yourself why are hedge fund managers suddenly so interested in the education of the urban poor? The main purpose of the testing craze is not to grade the students but to grade the teacher.”
“I cannot say for certain—not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing—but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”
The demonizing of teachers is another public relations feint, a way for corporations to deflect attention from the theft of some $17 billion in wages, savings and earnings among American workers and a landscape where one in six workers is without employment. The speculators on Wall Street looted the U.S. Treasury. They stymied any kind of regulation. They have avoided criminal charges. They are stripping basic social services. And now they are demanding to run our schools and universities.
“Not only have the reformers removed poverty as a factor, they’ve removed students’ aptitude and motivation as factors,” said this teacher, who is in a teachers union. “They seem to believe that students are something like plants where you just add water and place them in the sun of your teaching and everything blooms. This is a fantasy that insults both student and teacher. The reformers have come up with a variety of insidious schemes pushed as steps to professionalize the profession of teaching. As they are all businessmen who know nothing of the field, it goes without saying that you do not do this by giving teachers autonomy and respect. They use merit pay in which teachers whose students do well on bubble tests will receive more money and teachers whose students do not do so well on bubble tests will receive less money. Of course, the only way this could conceivably be fair is to have an identical group of students in each class—an impossibility. The real purposes of merit pay are to divide teachers against themselves as they scramble for the brighter and more motivated students and to further institutionalize the idiot notion of standardized tests. There is a certain diabolical intelligence at work in both of these.”
“If the Bloomberg administration can be said to have succeeded in anything,” he said, “they have succeeded in turning schools into stress factories where teachers are running around wondering if it’s possible to please their principals and if their school will be open a year from now, if their union will still be there to offer some kind of protection, if they will still have jobs next year. This is not how you run a school system. It’s how you destroy one. The reformers and their friends in the media have created a Manichean world of bad teachers and effective teachers. In this alternative universe there are no other factors. Or, all other factors—poverty, depraved parents, mental illness and malnutrition—are all excuses of the Bad Teacher that can be overcome by hard work and the Effective Teacher.”
The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals—themselves.
“It is better to be at odds with the whole world than, being one, to be at odds with myself,” Socrates said.
Those who can ask the right questions are armed with the capacity to make a moral choice, to defend the good in the face of outside pressure. And this is why the philosopher Immanuel Kant puts the duties we have to ourselves before the duties we have to others. The standard for Kant is not the biblical idea of self-love—love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you—but self-respect. What brings us meaning and worth as human beings is our ability to stand up and pit ourselves against injustice and the vast, moral indifference of the universe. Once justice perishes, as Kant knew, life loses all meaning. Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside—including religious laws—are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason. Socrates made the same argument when he said it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.
“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”
As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.
“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur—the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” Surprise, Fear and Fanaticism in Tucson By Rodolfo F. Acuña
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”
Surprise, Fear and Fanaticism in Tucson
Rodolfo F. Acuña
One of the little pleasures I have in life is waiting for the Saturday mail to bring The New Yorker to my door. Reading the magazine gives me a couple hours of escape; it is well-written and I can never predict the direction its conversations will take.
For instance, this week (Jan 16, 2012) the Inquiring Minds section reviews “The Spanish Inquisition.” The article is introduced by a Monty Python sketch where one of the members of the group, Michael Palin, announces “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
The author Adam Gopnik explores the history of the institution, relating the lessons to today; taking it from “Torquemada[i] to Dick Cheney, and from Guantánamo to Rome,” asking where were the others “when Giordano Bruno is burned to death…”[ii]
The theme of the Gopnik piece is that society always looks to the past for symbols of cruelty which inevitably are based on “surprise, fear…and fanatical devotion.” The gestapo, the K.G.B., the Stasi share similar profiles. Gopnik includes Guantánamo and the “more than twelve hundred government organizations [in the U.S. that] focus on national-security concerns…they have a forebear in Torquemada and the men in the red hats.” Like in the past, today’s torturers always act with surprise, fear and fanaticism, covering their actions with excuses of regret and necessity.
Gopnik is not an apologist for the Inquisition, commenting on the work of a revisionist historian, he writes, “his mordant point is not so much that the Inquisition doesn’t deserve its reputation for cruelty as that its victims don’t deserve theirs for moral courage.” There is always complicity with cruelty in the name orthodoxy such as in the case of Arizona.
Anti-Semitism, racism, and fanatical nationalism are imbedded in the oppressors’ culture. “The Spanish Inquisition didn’t have any real interest in saving the Jews’ soul; they just wantfirsted their houses and their money.” Thus, the purpose of the Inquisition was not to erase Jewish identity (or that of the Moslems) but to remove them as competitors.
This treachery can be compared to the abolishment of the Mexican Studies program in Tucson – civic leaders really don’t care if Mexicans go to school, just as long as they keep on making money off them and they learn what they want them to learn. Anti-Mexican feelings, racism and fanatical nationalism are imbedded in Tucson’s Torquemada culture. The truth be told, Latino identity a barrier to the inquisitors ends.
Acts of surprise, fear and fanaticism are hidden under the cover of regret and necessity. “The point of an inquisition is to reduce its victims to abstractions, and abandoning the effort to call their pain back to particular life…” Bruno’s sin was that he included a plurality of worlds with equal weight.
Even to this day the Pope says he is sorry that the Inquisition occurred. That is not acceptable to critics who want the Pope to say he is ashamed. Likewise it is not enough for society to say that it is sorry for slavery, and the lynching of blacks, browns and Asians. It is not enough to be sorry for keeping blacks and browns uneducated, society should be ashamed of it, just the same as Americans should be ashamed of Abu Ghraib, the pissing on the bodies of dead soldiers, the abolishment of the Tucson Mexican American Studies program, and the censorship of books.
In typical Torquemada fashion Tucson Unified School District inquisitors, Mark Stegeman, Michael Hicks, Miguel Cuevas and Alexandre Borges Sugiyama abolished the district’s highly successful Mexican American Studies program at the direction of the lord inquisitors in Phoenix. Now they are banning books.
Among the censored books are Leslie Marmon Silko, Rethinking Columbus, William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America, Arturo Rosales, Chicano!: The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement and Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory, in addition to a dozen other books.
Thus far, there has been no comment from the American Civil Liberties Union or progressives in the United States. Apparently they do not see the parallel in what is happening in Tucson, and what happened in South Africa under apartheid, the burning of the books by the Spaniards in Middle America, or, for that matter, Germany in the1920s and 30s.
Censorship is criminal. We live in a world of knowledge; books and education give us access to that knowledge; if we are deprived of it, the inquisitors deny us the right to make rational choices.
Arizona schools have abandoned its mission to educate students; they have intentionally denied Mexican American students access to knowledge. Consequently the Arizona bureaucracy has deliberately kept them in the fields, the mines and the prisons, hoping to deny them alternatives.
The purpose of critical thinking is to give students alternatives and to dispel myths and repel blind allegiance to those who deny them alternatives.
According to the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
The motivation of the TUSD Trustees cannot be explained in terms of greed alone. It cannot be rationalized by culture alone. Money and personal gain play a role. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” but it’s there.
Of the Tucson gaggle the only honest one is Hicks, who is openly a racist and limited intelligence. The failed scholar Stegeman is stuck on the promotion ladder. He’ll never make it to full professor without support of politicos. Sugiyama is a bad scholar and a worse teacher; his only chance for a full time position is to sell his posterior. The pitiful Cuevas just wants acceptance from rich white people in the city.
Monty Python and others can laugh at the fanaticism of the past; however, it is hard to laugh at today’s inquisitors. It is easier to turn the other way, La zorra nunca se ve la cola (The Skunk Doesn’t See Its Tail).
So, what can we do? We have no choice but to “Fight Back!”
[i] Tomás de Torquemada was the first Grand Inquisitor of Spain, appointed by the pope in 1483.
[ii] Giordano Bruno was an Italian 16th century Dominican friar who the Roman Inquisition found guilty of heresy for writing that the sun was not only the center of the universe but a star in a universe of other inhabited planets. Bruno was burnt at the stake.
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools
The New York Times
December 12, 2011
Profits and Questions at Online Charter Schools
By STEPHANIE SAUL
By almost every educational measure, the Agora Cyber Charter School is failing.
Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.
By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school. And the entire enterprise is paid for by taxpayers.
Agora is one of the largest in a portfolio of similar public schools across the country run by K12. Eight other for-profit companies also run online public elementary and high schools, enrolling a large chunk of the more than 200,000 full-time cyberpupils in the United States.
The pupils work from their homes, in some cases hundreds of miles from their teachers. There is no cafeteria, no gym and no playground. Teachers communicate with students by phone or in simulated classrooms on the Web. But while the notion of an online school evokes cutting-edge methods, much of the work is completed the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper while seated at a desk.
Kids mean money. Agora is expecting income of $72 million this school year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total anticipated revenues of K12, the biggest player in the online-school business. The second-largest, Connections Education, with revenues estimated at $190 million, was bought this year by the education and publishing giant Pearson for $400 million.
The business taps into a formidable coalition of private groups and officials promoting nontraditional forms of public education. The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.
The New York Times has spent several months examining this idea, focusing on K12 Inc. A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.
Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.
Current and former staff members of K12 Inc. schools say problems begin with intense recruitment efforts that fail to filter out students who are not suited for the program, which requires strong parental commitment and self-motivated students. Online schools typically are characterized by high rates of withdrawal.
Teachers have had to take on more and more students, relaxing rigor and achievement along the way, according to interviews. While teachers do not have the burden of a full day of classes, they field questions from families, monitor students’ progress and review and grade schoolwork. Complaints about low pay and high class loads — with some high school teachers managing more than 250 students — have prompted a unionization battle at Agora, which has offices in Wayne, Pa.
A look at a forthcoming study by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Education Policy Center shows that only a third of K12’s schools achieved adequate yearly progress, the measurement mandated by federal No Child Left Behind legislation.
Some teachers at K12 schools said they felt pressured to pass students who did little work. Teachers have also questioned why some students who did no class work were allowed to remain on school rosters, potentially allowing the company to continue receiving public money for them. State auditors found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted about 120 students for state reimbursement whose enrollment could not be verified or who did not meet Colorado residency requirements. Some had never logged in.
“What we’re talking about here is the financialization of public education,” said Alex Molnar, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education who is affiliated with the education policy center. “These folks are fundamentally trying to do to public education what the banks did with home mortgages.”
The online companies can tailor their programs by reducing curriculum and teachers. During a presentation at the Virginia legislature this year, a representative of Connections explained that its services were available at three price points per student:
Option A: $7,500, a student-teacher ratio of 35-40 to 1, and an average teacher salary of $45,000.
Option B: $6,500, a student-teacher ratio of 50 to 1, with less experienced teachers paid $40,000.
Option C: $4,800 and a student-teacher ratio of 60 to 1, as well as a narrower curriculum.
Despite lower operating costs, the online companies collect nearly as much taxpayer money in some states as brick-and-mortar charter schools. In Pennsylvania, about 30,000 students are enrolled in online schools at an average cost of about $10,000 per student. The state auditor general, Jack Wagner, said that is double or more what it costs the companies to educate those children online.
“It’s extremely unfair for the taxpayer to be paying for additional expenses, such as advertising,” Mr. Wagner said. Much of the public money also goes toward lobbying state officials, an activity that Ronald J. Packard, chief executive of K12, has called a “core competency” of the company.
In all, for-profit educational management companies run 79 online schools around the country, according to the study by researchers at Western Michigan University.
Many educators believe there is a place for full-time virtual learning for children whose pace is extremely accelerated or those with behavioral or other issues, like teenage mothers who need to stay home with their babies. But for most children, particularly in the elementary grades, the school experience should not be replaced with online learning, they say.
“The early development of children requires lots of interaction with other children for purposes of socialization, developing collaboration and teamwork, and self-definition,” said Irving Hamer Jr., deputy superintendent of Memphis city schools.
In an interview at K12’s headquarters in Herndon, Va., Mr. Packard said, “We’re here to help children, and that is our overriding purpose and we want to do it as well and efficiently as possible.”
He acknowledged what he called a “degradation” in K12’s test scores, but he argued that they are an inaccurate measure because many students are already behind when they arrive. “The type of child now coming to an online school, 75 percent of those kids coming in are behind more than one grade level,” Mr. Packard said.
He said K12 continues to invest in its curriculum and has developed interventions, like a remedial math program, to help struggling students.
“Kids have been shackled to their brick-and-mortar school down the block for too long,” Mr. Packard has said repeatedly, adding that for the first time, every child, regardless of where he or she lives, has a choice.
Some educators are questioning its value. “It’s choice,” said Thomas L. Seidenberger, superintendent of the East Penn School District in Pennsylvania, which is outperforming Agora and other online schools its students attend. “What about a bad choice?’”
The original pitchman for K12 was William J. Bennett, the former education secretary who helped found the company in 2000. At the time, Mr. Bennett said he viewed online schools as a haven for shy children, those worried about being exposed to drugs and even those with “terrible acne.”
The company planned to sell an education package directly to parents who wanted to home-school their children. But within months, K12 had decided to tap into public education dollars.
As the company’s product has become more popular, the cost has soared.
Mr. Bennett, who left the company in 2005, originally said a home-schooling package would cost about $1,000 per student per year. Parents who wanted teacher support would pay more.
Today, K12 receives an average of $5,500 to $6,000 per student from state and local governments. The schools also receive money for federal programs.
Because online schools do not collect every type of financing that goes to traditional public schools, Mr. Packard contends that his company’s schools, on a national average, cost taxpayers 40 percent less per student.
But online schools have negligible building costs and cheaper labor costs, partly because they pay teachers low wages, records and interviews show. Parents, called “learning coaches,” do much of the teaching, prompting critics to argue that states are essentially subsidizing home schooling.
“Any high school student taking economics could immediately recognize the fundamental flaws in their pricing structure,” said John E. Freund III, a Pennsylvania lawyer who represents a number of districts who are losing students to the online schools and the public financing that goes with them.
Because many states prohibit for-profit public education, the management companies for virtual schools run schools under contract with public districts or nonprofit charter schools, which also receive public money. But companies like K12 are almost fully in charge — devising curriculum, hiring teachers and principals and evaluating student performance.
Another way K12 maximizes its income is to establish schools in poor districts, which receive larger subsidies in some states. The company administers one of K12’s newest schools from Union County, Tenn., a mountainous Appalachian enclave where nearly a quarter of the residents live in poverty.
The Tennessee Virtual Academy is technically part of the local school district, which receives more per pupil from the state than most other districts in Tennessee. But of the school’s 1,800 pupils, few are actually from Union County.
Out of the state money, the Union County schools will get an administrative fee of about $400,000. K12 stands to collect almost $10 million to staff and manage the school. Dozens of other Tennessee counties, however, lost state financing when some of their students elected to go to the virtual school.
The online schools have enabled entrepreneurs like Michael R. Milken, whose company Knowledge Universe started K12 a decade ago and who remains an investor, to use education as a source of government-financed business, much as military contractors have capitalized on Pentagon spending.
Mr. Packard reports to investors every year with higher enrollment numbers and sales. On Nov. 15, he announced that the company’s online schools had enrolled more than 94,000 students. “I think online schools are becoming more mainstream,” said Mr. Packard, who was paid $5 million this year.
A sizable portion of the public money collected by K12 is rolled back into generating more business, a common practice by for-profit companies that nevertheless raises questions when the money is intended to educate schoolchildren. K12 spent $26.5 million on advertising in 2010, according to an analysis prepared for The New York Times by Kantar Media.
“Some of the cyber charter schools have fairly aggressive recruitment campaigns,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “They have vans, billboards, TV and radio ads. They set up recruitment meetings in area hotels and invite parents to come.”
K12 has run thousands of the sessions, where part of the pitch is supplying computers and subsidized Internet connections for qualifying families. Dr. Seidenberger said he was surprised to see ads for online schools in the outfield at Coca-Cola Park, the stadium of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs minor league baseball team.
Parents who become interested in K12’s schools can follow up by calling 866 numbers, which connect them to a call center in Herndon.
School employees who have visited the center have described a high-pressured sales environment aimed at one thing: enrollment.
Some workers, called “enrollment pals,” are paid bonuses based on the number of students they sign up, according to former employees knowledgeable of the operations. Mr. Packard’s annual bonus is also partly tied to enrollment.
Because the online schools are public, students cannot legally be denied enrollment. But former K12 employees said the aggressive and impersonal enrollment process lures students who are not a good fit.
“When you have the television and the Xbox and no parental figure at home, sometimes it’s hard to do your schoolwork,” said one Agora teacher, who asked not to be identified because of concerns over job safety.
The constant cycle of enrollment and withdrawal, called the churn rate, appears to be a problem at many schools. Records Agora filed with Pennsylvania reveal that 2,688 students withdrew during the 2009-10 school year. At the same time, K12 continued to sign up new students. Enrollment at the end of the year — 4,890 — was 170 students more than at the beginning, obscuring the high number of withdrawals.
Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University who researches for-profit school management companies, called the turnover troubling. “The kids enroll. You get the money, the kids disappear,” he said.
A review of K12 management contracts reveals that the company may still benefit from students who end up leaving. Under its contracts with some charter schools, K12 charges “upfront” fees for books and other supplies.
According to an Agora price list for the 2009-10 school year, K12’s upfront billings for elementary and middle school students were $60 a course for online services, $75 a course for materials and $75 per student for computers. With students frequently enrolled in six courses, the fees could surpass $800.
Under some of K12’s contracts, only a portion of the fees would be returned if students withdrew quickly. Mr. Packard has said the company does not make money if students leave because of the cost of the materials and shipping.
The state audit of the Colorado Virtual Academy, which found that the state paid for students who were not attending the school, ordered the reimbursement of more than $800,000.
With retention a problem, some teachers said they were under pressure to pass students with marginal performance and attendance.
Students need simply to log in to be marked present for the day, according to Agora teachers and administrators.
For most students, attendance is recommended but not mandatory at what are called synchronous sessions — when they can interact online with the teacher. A new grading policy states that students who do not turn in work will be given a “50” rather than a zero. Several teachers said assignments were frequently open for unlimited retakes.
Agora records from last year show that failing students were told they could make up their work. “All students with a course average of 40 to 59 percent were called and told all assignments past due could be made up without penalty,” according to minutes from a school board meeting. Similar calls were going out to students with averages of 0 to 39 percent.
Theresa Henderson, an Agora teacher until June 2010 and the mother of four of its students, said she was among faculty members who requested a stronger policy to dismiss students who were not doing their work.
Several current and former staff members said that a lax policy had allowed students to remain on the rolls even when they failed to log in for days. Officials of the Elizabeth Forward School District in western Pennsylvania complained that Agora had billed the district for students who were not attending.
One of them was a girl who had missed 55 days but was still on the school’s roster, according to Margaret Boucher, assistant business manager at Elizabeth Forward.
The school has cracked down on disengaged students, according to a statement by its director, Sharon Williams, who said a policy adopted last December mandates attendance at online classes for those students who do not log in, repeatedly fail to complete lessons or are failing three courses. She said the school follows state law by removing students who are absent for 10 consecutive days.
Poor attendance and disengaged students have been such a problem that Agora dismissed 600 students last year for nonattendance, 149 of them just before state tests were administered, according to school board minutes.
The Students and Parents
With K12 estimating the market for its schools as high as $15 billion, the company’s manifest destiny is to expand across the United States. Its newest conquest is Tennessee, where the company got legislative approval last May and began holding information sessions in July.
By fall, 1,800 students had enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy.
About 75 of them came from the struggling Memphis city school system, including the children of Denita Alhammadi.
In a neighborhood teetering on the edge of middle class, Ms. Alhammadi has converted her living room into a classroom. Two desks are for her children, Romeo, 13, and Yasmine, 8. Another is for Ms. Alhammadi, a former Army supply officer who is also studying online, through Kaplan University.
Within weeks of attending a K12 information session, Ms. Alhammadi had become parent and teacher, wrapped into one. She spends as much as six hours a day as the official “learning coach” for her children.
Like many parents who move their children to online schools, she had worried about violence. But no single reason leads families to make the switch. The students are a broadly diverse group, ranging from entertainers and athletes in training to children with cancer, seizure disorders, peanut allergies or behavioral problems. Some have been expelled from regular schools. In many cases their parents are simply dissatisfied.
Kathryn Ubiarco, whose son and daughter are also enrolled in Tennessee, said that her daughter’s school in Memphis had not been teaching her to read. “There’s no way to come up with the B that she got in reading last year,” Ms. Ubiarco said. “The child can’t read.” She believes the virtual school curriculum is more rigorous.
A lesson from a middle school world history class focuses on the history of the calendar and the recording of time. Intended to take one hour, the lesson opens online with an illustrated introduction. A video explains how time zones vary around the globe. After reading from a textbook, students define terms in a written journal. Then, the parent helps chart a timeline of the student’s own life.
The student can click on other online resources — flashcards, three timelines, two games and links to more than 20 other Web sites.
Students say the games are fun. They may encounter problems, though, when navigating the links. Of more than 20 links in the history lesson, five were not working on a recent day. Several linked to commercial sites including the History Channel and Yahoo Kids.
Students must score an 80 on an online assessment to move to the next lesson.
Some teachers have complained that it can be difficult to determine whether students are actually doing the work, or getting help from their parents or others. “Virtual schools offer much greater opportunity for students to obtain credit for work they did not do themselves,” said a report in October from the National Education Policy Center, which receives financing from the National Education Association.
Ms. Alhammadi, who runs her tiny school like boot camp, has hidden Romeo’s computer login so she has control. Otherwise, he would skip the lessons and move straight to the online test — a habit cited by critics of K12’s curriculum.
As two frisky cats run back and forth, Romeo raises his hand — a formality required by his mother — and asks to leave the room. He returns with headphones and plugs them into his computer. As he lip syncs Rihanna’s hit “Umbrella” it becomes clear that Romeo is not listening to any lesson. “I concentrate better with my music,” he says.
On his computer screen, a series of multiple choice questions ask him to select the correct answer to algebraic equations using negative numbers. Romeo scores a 67 percent.
When Romeo moves to science, he misses a question on the definition of matter.
“Romeo, Romeo,” his mother says. “If you had been studying appropriately, you would have found out that there are lots of properties of matter. And you got to take all those elements to build matter. Because elements are gas, solids, liquid.”
Romeo is scheduled for a virtual session with his assigned teacher and class at 1 p.m. But when he signs into the class, no one else is there. “Wow, the room is completely empty,” he says. He types, “Anyone here?” There is no response.
The monthly meeting of the Agora Cyber Charter School board of trustees is live on Blackboard, the same platform students and teachers use for class. During the November meeting, an elementary teacher, Jessica Long, placed a checkmark by her name, indicating she wanted to speak. Then she challenged school figures showing its student-to-teacher ratio is 49 to 1.
“I know on the elementary level we have anywhere from 70 to 100,” Ms. Long said. “I don’t know anyone who has 50 students.”
Some teachers said they were initially attracted to K12 by the flexibility of working from home, in some cases allowing them to take care of their own children while teaching.
Gwen Schwartz, an Indiana University graduate who teaches for the Tennessee Virtual Academy, works from her home in a remote area of eastern Tennessee while her children are next door with their grandparents. In addition to saving on child care, Ms. Schwartz can save on commuting costs and clothing.
But many teachers said the job had become less desirable as the company increased enrollment, particularly because pay at many K12 schools starts in the low 30s — low even for online schools. Some class sizes have become unwieldy, they said, requiring 60-hour weeks and compromising instruction.
At Agora, enrollment has reached 8,836, up from 6,323 in May, according to figures released by the school. As of late November, the total number of staff members — 408 — was lower than last year. Some high school teachers said they were managing as many as 270 students, even though they had been told they would have 150. Agora officials said last week that they hired 25 teachers in the past couple of weeks.
Some Agora teachers have been asked to take on extra students at the rate of $1 per student, per day, according to a newsletter from the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
In interviews, former teachers at Ohio Virtual Academy and Colorado Virtual Academy also complained of bigger class loads, with elementary teachers who once handled 40 to 50 pupils now supervising 75. A teacher with an elementary class that size and a 40-hour workweek could devote little more than 30 minutes a week to each student.
Mary Ravanelli, a former teacher at Ohio Virtual Academy, said she oversaw more than 70 students at a time, answering calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., updating parents on students’ progress and attending various school outings. “We’d actually meet our students several times a year,” she said.
With teacher salaries and benefits the biggest cost to K12, increasing student-to-teacher ratios is an easy way for the company to increase profits. Ms. Henderson, the former Agora teacher and mother of four students, said the ultimate losers are the children.
“What has happened now in honors literature courses, the teachers are not able to keep up with 300 students, so they’ll just cut curriculum. The kids are losing out,” she said. “This past week my son was exempted from ‘The Great Gatsby’ because of the workload of the teacher.”
“Choice” is a mantra of the charter school movement, which promotes competition as a way of compelling traditional public schools to improve. The for-profit companies that operate some charter and online schools take the idea a step further by arguing that private business models are more efficient than public school systems.
Together, the groups have formed a lobbying juggernaut in state capitals.
In Pennsylvania, where K12 Inc. collects about 10 percent of its revenues, the company has spent $681,000 on lobbying since 2007. The company also has friends in high places. Charles Zogby, the state’s budget secretary, had been senior vice president of education and policy for K12. In a statement, Mr. Zogby said he still owned a small number of K12 shares, but did not make decisions specifically affecting online schools.
An analysis by the National Institute on Money in State Politics concluded that K12 and its employees had also contributed nearly $500,000 to state political candidates across the country from 2004 to 2010.
One of the industry’s most persuasive promotional tools has been the young children who show up en masse at hearings to support online-school legislation. They are mobilized by groups tied to online schools. Records show that at least some receive industry funding.
When Karen Beyer, then a Pennsylvania state representative, sponsored a bill in 2007 to cut financing to online schools, about 700 people turned out for one hearing. Mr. Freund, the Pennsylvania education lawyer, said the room was “packed with kids.”
“They had on different colored T-shirts representing their cyber schools,” he added.
One of the organizers of such turnouts has been the Pennsylvania Families for Public Cyber Schools. Records show that the group, which gets money both from K12 and Connections Education, has spent about $250,000 on lobbying in the past five years.
Similar family organizations have cropped up across the country.
Former State Representative Stephen Dyer became suspicious when members of the benignly named organization My School, My Choice paraded through his northeastern Ohio district carrying signs attacking him: “Why Won’t Rep. Stephen Dyer let parents choose the best education for their kids?”
The protest was prompted by questions Mr. Dyer had raised over the state’s financing formula for charter and online schools. The group describes itself as a coalition of parents, teachers and employees of the schools. But Mr. Dyer said that his wife questioned the people carrying the signs and found out they were paid temp agency workers.
A telephone call to a toll-free number on the Web site for My School, My Choice was returned by Mark Weaver, a Columbus lawyer and political consultant with Republican ties dating back to the Reagan administration.
Mr. Weaver said the group’s crowning achievement was a 2009 rally against legislation in Ohio that would limit school choice. “We put 4,500 people on the statehouse lawn,” he said. But he declined to answer questions about the group’s leadership and financing.
Documents incorporating the organization provide clues. The forms name one of the group’s founders as Tim Dirrim, a Huntington National Bank employee who serves as board president of the Ohio Virtual Academy, which is managed by K-12 and receives more than $60 million a year from the state. Mr. Dirrim said he knew little about My School, My Choice and was not aware of the campaign against Mr. Dyer.
Much of the Ohio Virtual Academy’s money goes through an account at Huntington National, according to the Ohio auditor’s office. Mr. Dirrim said the banking arrangement was made before he joined the board and that he did not make decisions relating to the bank’s account with the school.
Mr. Packard has repeatedly delivered upbeat assessments to Wall Street about the progress of K12 Inc. students, even as many schools were performing poorly on state tests.
In a conference in March sponsored by the investment firm Morgan Stanley, Mr. Packard said that “our kids are doing as well or better than the average child in a brick-and-mortar school.”
During an investment analysts call in October, Mr. Packard boasted about results at Agora, calling them “significantly higher than a typical school on state administered tests for growth.” Weeks earlier, data had been released showing that 42 percent of Agora students tested on grade level or better in math, compared with 75 percent of students statewide. And 52 percent of Agora students had hit the mark in reading, compared with 72 percent statewide. The school was losing ground, not gaining it.
Mr. Packard said in a recent interview that he was not aware of the data at the time he made the comments. A spokesman said Mr. Packard was relying on older data.
A Stanford University group, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, tracked students in eight virtual schools in Pennsylvania, including Agora, comparing them with similar students in regular schools. The study found that “in every subgroup, with significant effects, cyber charter performance is lower.”
Devora Davis, the center’s research manager, said the group’s analysis of Pennsylvania online schools showed that students were slipping. “If they were paired with a traditional public schools student, the public school student kept their place in line, and the cyberstudent moved back five spots,” she said.
An analysis by the Carroll County Public School District in Virginia shows that the 400 students in the virtual program there performed worse than the regular students in 19 of 26 categories on the state assessment test.
The Carroll County superintendent, James Greg Smith, said he was particularly concerned about scores in middle school math, history and social sciences. In seventh-grade math, for example, only 35 percent of the online students passed a state assessment; 68 percent of the traditional students did.
It will be a while before test results are available for students at the new virtual school in Tennessee. Back in Memphis, Ms. Alhammadi is worried that her daughter, Yasmine, is moving too quickly. A computerized analysis shows that, at the rate she is going, Yasmine will be finished with all but one of her classes by March.
Red flags go up if a student is “zapping through like a rocket, lesson by lesson,” according to Tom DiGiovanni, K12’s senior director of product planning. “The teachers are instructed to drop in (by phone) and do a little quiz to kind of test students” to make sure they understand the concepts.
Five miles from Ms. Alhammadi’s home, Ms. Ubiarco has also turned her living room into a classroom. Her daughter Sabrina, 10, is in the fifth grade and her son, K.C., 6, is in kindergarten at the Tennessee Virtual Academy.
Ms. Ubiarco is giving Sabrina a math lesson — about the distributive property — on a white board in the family’s living room.
While his mother focuses on his sister, K.C. is doing his own thing — lying on the carpet crashing cars into Spider-Man and Batman action figures.
For the most part, Mrs. Ubiarco said the switch to online had gone smoothly, although she was initially stumped when she first got the K12 curriculum.
“I called the teacher the other day to find out what a simple predicate is,” she said. “She said it’s the verb. I said why don’t they just say that?”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 14, 2011