The commodification of kids – online schools in the US

Private companies using cartoon television networks to market online schools directly to children – it sounds far-fetched but it is happening in the United States right now, says Liz Robinson

Gary Miron


PPTA was privileged to have US academic Gary Miron as our guest last week. He talked to parents, teachers and communities around the country about online schools in his country – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Professor Miron is himself a teacher and has decades of experience in education, including opening a school. He has done extensive research in the education field, including on charter schools, school choice policies and virtual schools.

He is an entirely credible voice and which is one of the main reasons we invited him to New Zealand.

We’ve hosted experts before and one of the risks is that they may be seen, by the ministry at least, as too much “in our camp” to be heeded. Gary Miron did not have that problem. He is for online and virtual learning – passionately so: but he has the evidence for what works and what doesn’t.

And what doesn’t is full time virtual schools owned and run by the private sector. His evidence shows, once money is involved, students’ achievement and well-being move quickly from the centre of decision-making.

The results have been “devastatingly poor” with thousands of students dropping out of the courses before completion. “How can we make them serve the children before the serve themselves?” he asks.

Gary talked about virtual schools, also called online schools or cyber-schools. Here in New Zealand our Minister of Education has called them Cools (Communities of online learning) (We suspect the acronym came before the name. The shame!).

In New Zealand we already have what’s called blended learning – where schools use a combination of face to face and online teaching and learning. It works well. There are so many options when it comes to the use of new computer and communication technologies.

“There’s a lot going on in your state schools already. It’s exciting,” Gary says.

Full time online schools have all curriculum delivered via the internet. In the US there are more than 500 virtual schools, which have around 300,000 students enrolled. Over 40 percent of virtual schools are owned and run by large for-profit education management organisations, accounting for around 75 percent of students.

The numbers have a lot to do with a massive advertising budget, marketing the schools directly to children.

“They put a lot of resources into advertising on children’s television channels such as Nickelodeon, Gary says. “It’s not the parents that are seeing this advertising; it’s the children watching television.”

And these companies certainly have the money to advertise, advertise and advertise some more (The K-12 Chief Executive is paid $17million a year). When student turnover reaches unheard-of proportions companies like K-12 don’t reflect on their practice, they simply advertise for more students.

Gary says the model is not working in the US because of the for-profit interest in the more corporate model being used. The focus is on getting numbers through rather than focusing on whether online learning is the right method for a particular student.

The model is based around having an educated adult in the household to assist the student, alongside the online teacher. Sadly, it is the most vulnerable students who are being targeted by these companies, and they are the least likely to have this support at home. Families with both parents working would also struggle.

Gary recounted a story of a grandmother contacting him in tears after desperately trying to get assistance from K-12, one of the US’s largest online education providers. She was trying to support her granddaughter but it wasn’t working. “They, just don’t understand,” she said. “I’m illiterate.”

Accountability measures are profit related rather than student related, which leads to an incredibly high attrition rate, Gary says.

Gary is calling for a moratorium on new online schools or adding students to current schools in the US. He believes they should put the brakes on it and develop a new model with input from educators, researchers and families.

He recommends oversight mechanisms to help ensure student interests are served before corporate interests and regulations around completion, recruitment and class sizes. He also recommends pilot-testing the new model before lifting the moratorium.

His advice for New Zealand? Take your time.

“Study and better understand current practices in state schools and your Virtual Learning Networks. Find out how best to support them,” he said.

He believes teachers and state schools should be incentivised to continue expanding their online services, through technical assistance and time and advocates a national support agency to provide support.

He believes new providers, especially private, for-profit ones, should be restricted – although they may have a role in developing and delivering individual courses.

His main take home message is to avoid rushing into reforms.

"Instead envision the future and plan and work systematically to improve and expand online and blended learning options for students.”

“The most important thing is not to rush.”




Last modified on Wednesday, 14 December 2016 16:49