K¹² Focused on Academic Outcomes, Improved Outreach & Enrollment

“We’ve renewed our commitment to academic outcomes,” said Nate Davis, Executive Chairman of K¹² after a tough couple of weeks of criticism. “We have improved the quality of our outreach and enrollment practices, and focused on improved outcomes as measured by traditional state tests.”
Mr. Davis joined the K¹² board of directors in 2009 and was named chairman of the board in June 2012.  In January, Davis took a more active role in corporate oversight “with a focus on excellence in academic, operational and financial performance.”  The candor of the chairman and the way he owned the problem was refreshing to K¹² employees I spoke with.
Criticized for its aggressive recruiting tactics, K¹² made big changes in the way it responds to parents interested in K¹² and the online schools it manages.. They significantly increased their quality assurance measures with a focus on ensuring parents are educated about how the schools work and level of commitment and engagement required to succeed.  Davis flatly rejected the claim that K12 is targeting at-risk populations of students who are not well-suited for online schools.  He said K12 and its partner schools want to see students enroll who are willing and able to succeed.  The improvements in the enrollment process are designed to help parents make better and more informed choices for their children, he said.
In the past, the nonprofit schools that contracted with K¹² operated their academic programs with a high degree of autonomy, leading to variability in academic approach and results.  This year, K¹² has encouraged collaboration across its partner schools given the shared accountability for academic improvement.  K¹² has also demanded more accountability and results across all divisions in the company.
Low grades on state tests are a function of many factors–I outlined some of them after an iNACOL sponsored meeting on quality online learning:

  • Many students enroll late–65 percent says one national provider–and late enrollers perform significantly worse and withdraw at much higher rates than students that enroll on time.
  • Providers receive little or no information about a student from the previous school, particularly trend data (i.e., a learning trajectory).
  • Online schools are often much larger and very diverse (i.e., because of sub-groups, it can be harder to make AYP with 5,000 than 500).
  • Students not successful in a traditional setting enroll in online schools seeking an alternative. Districts complain about students returning from charters, but the same happens to online charters–11th graders with two credits show up and are statistically unable to graduate on time with their high school cohort group.
  • New students often perform poorly in their first year (which may reflect prior achievement as well as new modality) and, as a result, the percentage of new students predicts performance.
  • Students whose parents do not attend information sessions or meet with teachers withdraw at much higher rates (but providers typically can’t require an in person kickoff session).
  • State models rating what is basically the same program report widely different results (e.g., see NCES report on differences in state growth models).
  • Truancy rules often don’t allow online charter schools to move students out who are not actively engaged in their education.

The late enrollment issue is tricky. One one hand, it’s clear that most late enrollers won’t be successful, but on the other hand charter school are obligated to take all comers.   K¹² is working with its district and charter board partners to adopt policies which seek to address late enrollment and truancy matters.  They are also providing better information to students and parents–making it clear that online learning isn’t an easy way to gain a credit.  There is also a policy fix–the sector would benefit from state funding and assessment policies (like Florida) that support rolling enrollments rather than single count dates

Better measures. In my May interview with K12 Leadership we discussed the mismatch with state measurement systems. End of year grade level tests are a poor measure of academic contribution–for any kind of school. Where they exist, growth rates are estimates for a cohort. It’s time for states to track individual student growth using comparable measures. This particularly important as full and part time online learning continues to expand.  

K¹² uses adaptive Scantron tests to measure student growth. In A Proposal for Better Growth Measures I suggested using Lexile/Quantile scales—it’s easy to correlate the two growth scales.  Smarter Balanced states will use an adaptive engine from AIR and it should improve the measurement of individual student progress.  

Davis agreed with my problem analysis but won’t use it as an excuse.  He said, “If states use end of year exams, we’ll get better at preparing students to perform well.”  He also stated they are piloting a variety of new programs and instructional models with their school partners that would be geared toward improving achievement and engagement, including making teacher-led online class sessions mandatory for new and low performing students.

Like traditional schools, it’s clear that online schools do not work for everyone. But it’s also clear that for some students and families full time online learning is the only option.
K12 is an Advocacy Partner of Getting Smart

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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