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Voices: Inside for-profit education

Former online teacher Patricia Lang doesn’t believe taxpayer dollars should be used for online schools after her experiences in the trenches.

In 2005 I began working for COVA, the Colorado Virtual Academy. The position was flexible to allow me to work from home, care for my granddaughter and still work with special needs students.

The mentor teacher walked me though the computer set up, the documentation and the procedures of the online school. I began with vast amounts of curriculum and a class list of 24 students. The expectation was to download their IEPs (individualized educational plans), written for students who have special needs in specific academic areas. I would contact the learning coach at least once a week to discuss their students’ academic progress, their individual goals and to assist with resources and teaching strategies. As a special education teacher I had the opportunity to work with both students and their parent(s). We worked together as a team building student confidence and skills.

Missing was the face-to-face contact. My students were disbursed widely throughout the Western Slope. I kept records, documented progress on IEP goals, held IEP meetings and still had time to care for my granddaughter. I was also required to attend marketing events for K-12, an online curriculum company. These marketing events were designed to increase enrollment through recruitment. I attended a local religious event, Night Vision, where I passed out literature and encouraged students and their families to enroll in COVA. As the years rolled by the number of students on my class list increased. When I left COVA in November of 2012, I was responsible for the learning of 43 special education students. I had also been given the responsibility to teach reading-related concepts and vocabulary to all middle school students with goals in these areas, numbering more than 90 students.

At the administrative level, the paperwork increased dramatically; not only IEP’s but now there were a variety of spreadsheets to keep updated both on and off the school server. There were constant changes that continued throughout the school year. The continuing modifications to documentation left families and staff often times confused and overwhelmed. I requested that changes be made during the summer and left in place for the academic year. Students needed consistency and educators needed time to determine the effectiveness of the changes. Changing reporting procedures was not good policy and it adversely affected students and families. Many teachers found the reporting requirements along with the large class rosters impossible. Teacher turnover in COVA was high and many would leave or be replaced.

I watched each year as COVA grew progressively worse. The changes kept coming with increasing numbers of students, mountains of paperwork, spreadsheets and extensive notes in a school-wide/national database called Total View.

By the 2012-2013 school year, the emphasis was completely on test scores. Study Island (owned and operated by K-12) involved drill and practice to prepare students for TCAP, previously CSAP. Teacher evaluation and pay are tied to scores on TCAP. Through the Atlas Model (also K-12), all teaching is prescribed instead of personalized to the needs of the students. The Blackboard Collaborative online classroom (another K-12 product) monitors teacher’s sessions to ensure the Atlas Model is followed to the letter. If all of the elements are not included it is noted on your monthly evaluation, impacting your bonus or pay increase for the next school year. Testing is the primary aspect of online learning.

At a professional development meeting a couple of years ago, a regional K-12 manager informed the teaching staff at COVA that a master’s degree was of absolutely no value in the K-12 system. Teachers were not encouraged or compensated for furthering their own education. Recruiting new teachers with lesser experience and qualifications helped the corporation keep salary costs lower and minimize expenditures.

Online curriculum is the means to mass educate students at a lower cost. As my class roster grew and the quality of my teaching and student learning declined it became apparent that companies like K-12 are in business to make money, not educate. In my personal and professional opinion, for-profit organizations should not be able to profit from taxpayer dollars intended to educate our future citizenry; it is the students who are short-changed when the primary goal is to fill shareholder’s pockets.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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