Educators and others got a first look this month at the offerings from K12 Inc., the Virginia-based company led by former U.S. education secretary and conservative icon William J. Bennett.
The company aims to profit by delivering instruction via the internet to students as young as kindergartners, but critics question whether students that young can learn as well as older students do in an online environment.
When K12 launched late last year, it drew cheers from homeschooling parents, criticism from some teacher unions, and curiosity from all observers. Now, as the company opens its virtual doors for its first cohort of students, the K12 seems intent on expanding into the charter school market while remaining true to its homeschooling customers.
K12 boasts leadership from high-profile individuals and groups. In addition to Bennett, who holds the chairmanship of K12, the company also has attracted Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter as its chief technology advisor. The firm was launched with a $10 million investment from the Knowledge Universe Learning Group, backed by financier Michael Milken.
Although K12 has attracted attention as an online schooling option, its lessons draw more from traditional texts and materials than they do from computer-based sources.
A typical lesson begins with a review of previously learned material. Then, activities that use materials readily available around the home are presented, such as estimating the number of jars in a spice rack in first-grade math or building a river bed out of sand and a baking dish when studying the Nile in first-grade history. Online examples illustrate the lesson at hand. A graphic of a flooding river overtaking a field accompanies the lesson on the Nile, while a game of clicking on the closest estimate is included in the mathematics lesson.
Most of the lessons, however, are paper-based. The lessons point to specific text and exercise pages in the accompanying books that ship with their purchase. Worksheet pages and answer keys in portable document format (PDF) are available online but are intended for printing and traditional completion. The lessons conclude with enrichment information, such as the history section on the Nile River today.
“Three-quarters of the time [is spent] offline,” said Ron Packard, chief executive officer of K12, who acknowledges that the program involves a variety of delivery methods. Packard declined to release current enrollment figures but said the number is “in the thousands.” K12 has made a deliberate decision to open its doors to just the youngest studentsthose in grades K-2this year. Packard says this is because K12 has “very high standards” that exceed those in place by any state in the country. Therefore, the organization prefers to start with a fresh group of students and establish the entry-level lessons first. In later years, the company will take older students who might require remediation before entering their targeted grade.
The company’s focus on grades K-2 is not without its critics, however.
“I’m not convinced that students that young can learn as well online,” said Jim McVety, an analyst with Eduventures.com. By targeting the youngest students, McVety says K12 is attempting to bring online education to a population that many people feel protective of. “Students are a bit more sacred when they’re younger,” he said. McVety said K12 will need to be aware of the market to be successful financially. “High school is really where we’re going to see growth” in online education, he said, adding that K12’s approach of starting with younger students may put the company behind its competitors.
He also noted that homeschooling is just a small piece of the education pie. “The homeschool market is growing, but it won’t surpass two million any time soon, versus 54 million [students] in U.S. public schools,” he said. K12 officials say they’re aware of these figures, and they are making inroads into the charter school market as well. “We’re moving full speed in both directions,” Packard said.
Before this school year began, K12 signed contracts to supply online curriculum to charter schools across the country, including Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, Texas Virtual Charter School, and Colorado Virtual Academy. At press time, K12 also was in discussions with Florida officials. “We eventually want to be selling this in public schools,” Packard said. To this end, K12 is developing what Packard describes as “niche products,” such as assessment tools, that will help the company gain entry into public schools. K12’s peers in the online education game seem to react generally positively to its entry into the market, especially as it serves homeschoolers.
“The curriculum would seem to be helpful to parents who have made the decision to homeschool, in that it would provide a consistent framework,” said Linda Pittenger, director of the Kentucky Virtual High School.
Pittenger believes K12’s emphasis on face-to-face teaching is a critical part of the curriculum. “The role of a caring and supportive teacher or parent who can help guide each student toward activities that address the individual learner’s needs is important,” she said. Julie Young, executive director of the Florida Virtual School, agrees that more depends on the educational environment and needs of the learner than whether the materials are delivered online or by text.
“The question could be raised as to whether any materials are appropriate” for a given student, she said. “It’s different from child to child.” Ultimately, this school year is critical to the success of K12. Packard says the company will measure its success by “how children do on state assessments and our own final exams,” as well as by its customer retention rate, which the company hopes will be 100 percent.
K12 “needs this school year to bring examples of success to the fore,” said McVety.
Until hard data are available, McVety says, K12 will “sell the vision this year, results next year.”
Kentucky Virtual High School
Florida Virtual School