Florida

Putting Education Reform To The Test

Florida Investigates K12, Nation’s Largest Online Educator

Stephanie Kuykendal / Getty Images News

Former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett founded K12, the nation's largest online education company. The Florida Department of Education is investigating whether the company used uncertified teachers to lead classes.

Editor’s note: Trevor Aaronson is with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Florida’s Department of Education has launched an investigation of K12, the nation’s largest online educator, over allegations the company uses uncertified teachers and asked employees to help cover up the practice.

K12 officials told certified teachers to sign class rosters that included students they hadn’t taught, according to documents that are part of the investigation.

In one case, a K12 manager instructed a certified teacher to sign a class roster of more than 100 students. She only recognized seven names on that list.

“I cannot sign off on students who are not my actual students,” K12 teacher Amy Capelle wrote to her supervisor. “It is not ethical to submit records to the district that are inaccurate.”

The documents suggest K12 may be using uncertified teachers in violation of state law.

In 2009, K12 asked Seminole County Public Schools if it could use uncertified teachers in some of its online classes. That uncertified teacher would be overseen by a so-called “teacher of record” — a certified teacher.

Seminole County Public Schools consulted with the Florida Department of Education and then denied the request, citing state law requiring certified teachers.

The Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General is now looking into whether K12 violated state law by using teachers of record, even after education officials warned the company it can’t.

State investigators confirmed the probe to FCIR/StateImpact Florida, but declined to discuss it.

K12 officials would not agree to an interview. In a statement, spokesman Jeff Kwitowski said the company is working closely with investigators.

“We do not believe the allegations against K12 regarding teacher certification are accurate,” he wrote.

“K12’s policy is to follow teacher certification requirements. K12 teachers assigned to teach students in Florida are state certified.

“Because K12 is continuing to work with state officials on this matter, further comment would be inappropriate.”

Sign Here, Please

K12 operates in 43 Florida school districts, including in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties. The company teaches everything from art to algebra to students in kindergarten through high school.

According to K12’s website, students enjoy “state-certified teachers, with a parent or other responsible adult in the role of ‘Learning Coach.’ ”

The state investigation started in January, when a former K12 employee forwarded a series of e-mails to Seminole County schools officials.

In one email, K12’s Florida project manager asked teachers to sign off on having taught students they may have never encountered.

“So if you see your name next to a student that might not be yours it’s because you were qualified to teach that subject and we needed to put your name there,” K12’s Samantha Gilormini wrote on Feb. 15, 2011.

Gilormini asked K12 teacher Capelle, whose emails helped spark the investigation, to sign off on a list of 112 students. Of the 112, she’d taught seven of the students, and refused to sign.

“I am happy to sign for the seven Seminole students who are my students, but I cannot sign as the teacher of record for students who I do not know,” Capelle wrote.

Since Capelle didn’t sign off the students, K12 manager Gila Tuchman signed in her place and submitted the records to Seminole County Public Schools, certifying that Capelle had taught students she in fact had not.

‘Far Beyond the Borders of Seminole County’

K12

K12 is the nation's largest online education company and served Florida students in 43 school districts.

After reading these emails, Seminole County officials followed up with a survey of parents whose kids were enrolled in K12 classes. Parents were given a list of teachers who reportedly instructed their children.

More than one-third of parents said the listed teacher did not teach their child.

Only 36 percent of parents said their child’s teacher was the one K12 had listed. The rest could not be reached or said they couldn’t remember.

The survey and emails prompted Seminole County officials to request that the Department of Education investigate. They warned the state that the problems they uncovered with K12 may be widespread.

“We have cause for concern over the use of uncertified teachers by K12, LLC,” they wrote. “Since K12 uses the same teachers across the state in virtual instruction programs, this issue may reach far beyond the borders of Seminole County.”

Other Florida districts have found problems when officials checked whether certified teachers taught K12 courses.

Leon County Schools spokesman Chris Petley said his district has removed students from K12 courses that were taught by teachers who were either not certified in Florida or not certified in the course subject.

“If the teacher is not both,” Petley said of certifications, “we move them out of there.”

Leon County Schools and other Florida public school districts may not be able to detect the problems that Seminole officials discovered.

That’s because Seminole County requires virtual school teachers to sign off on class rosters, certifying they actually taught those students.

Profits And Controversy

shawn.bayern / Flickr

The Florida Department of Education Office of Inspector General, located in Tallahassee, is investigating whether K12 used uncertified teachers for online courses. The company says it followed all state laws.

K12 has a financial incentive to skirt Florida’s law requiring the use of certified teachers. Simply, K12 can pay uncertified teachers less than certified teachers while collecting the same amount per student from state public school districts, increasing profits for shareholders.

Founded in 2000 by William Bennett, a former U.S. education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, K12 is an $864 million publicly traded company whose stock price has more than doubled in the last year.

In recent years, K12 has increased profits while student performance has suffered, raising questions about whether the for-profit virtual schools provider is making money at the expense of academics.

K12 has drawn criticism nationwide.

In Arizona, school officials worry the online courses are not as rigorous as traditional schools. An Arizona Republic investigation found that a high percentage of students were dropping out of K12 and the state’s other online schools.

The Georgia Department of Education has threatened to end K12’s virtual program if the company does not reduce its student-to-teacher ratio.

In Tennessee, data showed K12’s student performance ranked near the bottom of state schools.

A July 2012 study by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado found that students at K12 schools fell further behind in reading and math scores than pupils in traditional schools.

K12 officials say online education isn’t for everyone, but should remain an option for students.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/susanoha Susan Ohanian

    This is a critical investigation. I would add that in a unique twist on ed reporting, I looked at the curriculum, examining every history lesson for grades K-2. And lived to tell about it in a report for National Education Policy Center. It’s rather mind-boggling. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/the-k12-virtual-primary-school-history-curriculum-a-participants-eye-view

    • Rachel W.

      This assessment in the link posted is bias. I have taught my children 1st-3rd grade history using the k12 curriculum and I strongly disagree with her critique of the program.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zulu.romeo.37 Zulu Romeo

    The system is working exactly as planned. The DOE is moving tax dollars set aside for public education into the hands of private sector, for profit, “Job Creators”. Otherwise it will be wasted on fat cat unionized teachers salaries and benefits who are promoting their archaic fact based science and anti-family values critical thinking. In our new and improved system students and teachers are business expenses and profit is the only important measurable outcome.
    A word of caution to the DOE/OIG. Move along. Nothing to see here if you want to keep your job. Remember what Governor Scott did to the DJJ/IG for disclosing that a private sector contractor was using tax dollars for personal expenses. She was small potatoes compared to Bennett and his friends.

    • Kristi Wilson

      In Indiana the public schools play pass the worst teachers each year. These people have no reason to work because none can be fired! You think they care about your child’s education? I haven’t met one lately.

      • m&m

        That is so cynical! All the teachers I know work their butts off trying to deal with overloaded classrooms and challenging student populations. That goes for my son’s teacher, who has 31 five-year-olds in one room. I can barely keep on top of my two sons; I can’t imagine managing 31!
        Let’s show some respect for a difficult job.

        • Rachel W.

          m&m, you have a valid point. 31 five year olds in one class room is too many. K12 has allowed me to remove my children from this dysfunctional system and place them in an environment where they are getting the education they need. My student ratio is 2 to 1.

        • Kristi Wilson

          Three teachers suspended for abuse one of my child so I’m a hard sell when it comes to not having a choice. No way would my kid be in a room with thirty other students :) ) great teacher or not

        • Itay Seith

          until teachers commidity is actually priced accurately, there will never be good science in public school…I can earn more in a shorter timeframe even if I work for the government at least 15 years.

          Environmental Scientist at $55,000 vs. Teacher with degree enhancements at $42000-irrespective of benefits, pensions, or workload.

    • Rachel W.

      K12 is a curriculum provider with an online component that allows the state to track a students progress throughout the year. Their science curriculum is based on fact and is more comprehensive than the curriculum my children were being taught in the public school system.

      Curriculum development has always been a big business, but I don’t see you attacking Saxon or any other curriculum developer. They are for profit businesses that receive tax dollars. However, K12 does pose a threat to the failing union controlled public school system. Maybe that is the real problem you have.

  • Melissa

    My son does k12, and this doesn’t bother me. Why? Because the teachers don’t teach the kids. We do, and the software does. The teachers role is an adviser and they also check to make sure we are doing the work by checking work samples. They do weekly “class connects” but it’s just a quick 45 min- hour screenshare where they go over a lesson. It’s no big deal.

    • Ron

      Really Melissa no big deal? The state is paying for certified teachers the company is keeping the difference they pay the uncertified teachers, that’s fraud.

      Simply, K12 can pay uncertified teachers less than certified teachers while collecting the same amount per student from state public school districts, increasing profits for shareholders.
      You’re a taxpayer this comes out of your pocket, no big deal.

  • KM

    I really hope this is not true. There programs are a good option for so many, but every state runs them differently. Our school in OK that used K12 hires it’s own teachers. They are not K12 teachers….but stories like this can ruin perfectly good programs for kids who really need them and are thriving with them!

  • Laura O

    Our teachers here in TX with TXVA are state-employed teachers. They are not employed by K12, they are merely the curriculum provider, as any school buys their books and software from a vendor, so does TXVA (and many other states’ virtual academies.) We are a public charter school with state-certified, state-employed teachers and the state keeps a VERY close eye on our school (invasively so). Not every state virtual academy is using K12 employees as their teachers, so the implication in this article that this is so wide-spread, is a false statement.

  • Kristi Wilson

    EXACTLY, MELISSA! Learning coaches are the teachers. The teacher send cute emails, and track the progress bar. Class connects are more social for the kids in my opinion. You can report errors to the teacher and they correctly load courses. I’m not a certified teacher.

  • Nations Oldest City

    I too am a K12 Learning Coach and as Melissa said….doesnt phase me at all as I am her teacher they are a liason. No way no how would I put my First grader who is at a third grade level into brick and mortor …..been there done that. She was getting into trouble as she was taught many things from me as a stay at home mom before she went in. She was getting into trouble out of boredom. Now, K12 is a godsend for us as the cirriculum is set at exactly what she needs. Notice how most of this post makes no mention of a K12 teacher? Exactly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1337227767 Clyde Gaw

    Online learning is statistically weak compared to face to face educational experience…..http://www.ifets.info/journals/11_1/23.pdf
    Someone’s raking in some jack at taxpayer expense….

    • Rachel W.

      This study was based on college students not K-12. The k12 program is completely different than online college courses because k12 courses are taught face-to-face by the learning coach.

  • biggs_t@ymail.com

    Well, I hope our doctors and nurses aren’t replaced by “coaches.” Our students deserve education professionals, not software, not stand ins. Little Johnnie’s mommy can be the room mother or lunch monitor, but I want my child to have class with teachers who earned masters degrees.

  • TheSongRemainstheSame1

    Why are we, as voters, allowing our students to have such shoddy education? K12 has a ton of misdeeds in their name-official or unofficial. As voters, we need to examine the education policies our local and federal governments have created, and demand more! Not more spending, but more education! Why are we all expected to teach to the test? Why is it that the NCLB generation can’t think critically? Teachers are being asked to teach to lower levels of thinking because of NCLB, not in spite of it.

    America’s children deserve better.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kheicksen Katherine Heicksen

    Children that attend virtual schools have often already had a great deal of trouble in traditional schools. It isn’t the same type of population of students that they are comparing here. Also, when you have a program like this, the success of the student is more dependent on intensive parental involvement as well as self-driven student motivation than the success of students in more traditional programs. The curriculum, however, is excellent, After needing to remove my daughter from a brick and mortar school due to a safety issue at the school, I taught my daughter for two years using the k12 curriculum as “learning coach.” I was a perfectly capable teacher without certification and she was tested regularly by a certified teacher to monitor progress. We stopped using the program because I realized the value of socialization and found a safer school environment. However, I miss the curriculum my daughter used to have access to. It was far more rigorous than the traditional school curriculum and she was allowed to move ahead at her own accelerated pace. There are advantages and disadvantages. Options like these are important for students and families to have.

  • Itay Seith

    I am an individual who can certify my BA/BS/BS Philosopy-Ethics/Biology/Chemistry and then my MPH-Epidemiology & MPA-Governmental Contracts Cost Recliamation, but I am not able to teach students due to a certification that is only allowed after I take another 15 Semester Hours. All that limits my certification is in direct active ignorance of my 13 years of managing a $28 million annual budget and the 23 individuals whom I was their director, mentor, and guidance counselor: all in one.

    I find this disgusting…especially since I am male, 41, hold two master’s degrees, and the transition to become a certified teacher is terribly difficult.

  • Mimi

    Are family coaches permitted to show up unannounced at your door as often as they prefer and demand to come inside?

  • Jennifer Almon

    My two children use K12 in TN, and it is more vigorous than the private school they attended before joining K12. I am a certified high school science teacher, and I have won several awards for my teaching in the past before I started homeschooling my children with the K12 program. I have only positive things to say about the teachers of K12 and the two years we have participated in the program. It is an amazingly wonderful program, and the class connects are engaging and completely capture my children’s attention.

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