Is Online Education for K-12 Really Wrong-headed?

By Larry Penley
The real answer is that we don’t know – yet. Recent investigative journalism by papers as diverse as The New York Times and Arizona Republic have left the impression that online education is underperforming, costly, and misguided. A careful look at the way respective journalists made their cases leaves parents and the public asking for more incisive and scientifically-based investigations. Here is how some of the criticism was constructed and what we need to answer the question about the value of online education.
For the most part, the criticism was based on the following:

  • The testimony of “experts”
  • Reports on profitability of the educational firms, and
  • Use by these firms of revenue for advertising and lobbying.

Along with these criticisms, there were unfavorable comparisons of online education with traditional education based on adequate yearly progress (AYP), i.e., what a student learned or someone’s individual report of what was learned.
Let me begin with the testimony of experts. Online education and blended education, a combination of in-class and online learning, are still relatively new. Thus, finding an expert who believes that online K-12 education is wrong-headed or underperforming is no surprise. Of course, it is opinion that is being expressed, albeit from someone who has professional credentials. If scientific evidence is unavailable, and, for the most part, it is unavailable relative to online K-12 education, we should expect that an expert is qualified, i.e., the credentials of an expert are clearly explained. Then, the reader can judge whether to rely on an expert’s testimony based on those credentials. Reporting the views of unnamed “experts” or those who have not been qualified for the reader fails the test of good argumentation and fails to answer the question of the efficacy of online or blended learning.
Secondly, recent articles about online education have highlighted firms’ profitability and salaries of their executives. While the level of profitability of a given firm may bother some individuals, I applaud the free market’s capability of making profits via commercialization of new technologies that have the potential for benefiting consumers. We are seeing widespread, novel application of the Internet and information technology in new products and services, including teaching and learning.
Underlying the this focus on profits is, I fear, a fundamental hostility toward capitalism or, at least, hostility toward capitalism’s role in teaching and learning for K-12 students. I do not share this hostility nor do I find it wrong for government to outsource services to the for-profit sector. It does so frequently in areas like transportation, healthcare, and defense, for example. The test should be – not whether the service is being performed by the for-profit or nonprofit sector – whether the service is being performed successfully.
A third source of journalistic criticism was the source of for-profit firms’ revenues and their uses of revenue. That public money is used to pay for a service rendered by the private sector is not inherently wrong, at least not in my view. Governments use the for-profit sector to perform a variety of services; indeed, some people have argued that we should outsource more public services to the private sector than we already do. In areas like transportation, for example, we outsource the design and construction of roads. In many ways, the successful use of government-defined specifications for roads with government oversight of what is constructed is similar to what we should expect in the education sector.
A related element of this third criticism is the for-profit firm’s use of its revenue for advertising and lobbying. I may disagree with what a nonprofit or for-profit firm says in its advertising or in its lobbying, but I will not disagree with their constitutionally guaranteed first amendment rights to tell their story. That this exercise of first-amendment rights is part of a veiled criticism does not answer the question of whether online education is wrong-headed or valuable to raising U. S. educational outcomes.
Schools that use a for-profit company’s online curriculum or its management of a school are responsible to local, governmental bodies that create the same expectations for traditional schools.  The same school board or state board should be holding both online and traditional schools to the same expectations for outcomes – what is learned. And outcomes – student performance – should be the basis for evaluating the efficacy of online education.
Criticism is appropriate, especially when we are dealing with something as important to our future as the education of young people. Yet, criticism should be soundly presented and, where possible, based on good science. Where performance of online K-12 education has been addressed so far, somewhat murky comparisons of performance have been made between it and traditional K-12. What is needed now is not opinion, whether from qualified or biased experts. What is needed now is not indictment based on underlying distrust of the for-profit sector. What is needed now is not indictment for exercise of first amendment rights. What is needed now is sound research based in science. Only then will we be able to settle the question – Is Online Education for K-12 Really Wrong-headed?

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Dave Edwards

"The test should be – not whether the service is being performed by the for-profit or nonprofit sector – whether the service is being performed successfully."
Larry, thank you for this article. The question is correct, are the outcomes favorable? Are the students' being successful? We just can't get past the fact that government bureaucracy slows down progress and sometimes isn't as effective (cost or performance measures) as what private enterprise can do. The military figured this out and economic development around military business continues to thrive. Why not in education? The worry of replacing teachers, administrators, etc. should not get int the way of helping education. Good teachers, admins, etc. won't get replaced - they may even get hired by private firms and make good money!
Regardless, I agree that we need to look at the data versus the opinions about online learning and how for-profits are working within this space. Great article!

Marianne Bartley

Progressive administrators and public school teachers are creating a more dynamic and fluid school system - utilizing public moneyschool wisely and restructuring the delivery system. It is already underway! We want to keep and cultivate our talent!

Charlie Mas

I don't think it's helpful or meaningful to ask "Is Online Education for K-12 Really Wrong-headed?" The answer, of course, is that some of it certainly is. Some of it certainly isn't. Some of it works for some students and some of it doesn't work for some students. We can find examples of all of these.
In short, it's a stupid question.
A better question would be "When, How, and for Whom is Online Education Effective?"
There's no doubt that online education works well for teaching and building skills. There's no doubt that it works well for individualizing instruction.
Likewise, it works poorly for making connections, for exploring context, and for addressing individual student needs. It's not a great place for collaboration - not nearly as good as meatspace. So much of communication is non-verbal and so much of relationships are, well, wet.
So let's not pick up such a broad brush. Let's use a tool that allows for more detailed work and ask a better question. We'll get a better answer.


Of course Larry Penley would say that online k-12 is good. He is biased since he is a management consultant and strategic marketer. He likes capitalism because it makes him rich. But the question is, if capitalism works, how come our economy has failed three times in the past one hundred years, and k-12 uses public funds for lobbying to push their agenda that benefits the private sector, not the students. It's scary when the guy can't even use proper grammer. Wrong-headed? Try "heading in the wrong way".

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.