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Education Transformation

Tuesday, December 9, 2014  
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By Ron Packard

Reviewed by Sarah Stewart
{Headlines} January 2014

Ron Packard, the founder and now former CEO of K12, a for-profit education company that sells online schooling and curriculum to schools and individuals, wrote a book about the future of schooling and its intersection with online learning. Although the book is pretty clearly written from the perspective of not just a devotee of online learning, but from someone who is trying to sell online learning, it is an important topic for independent school leaders to stay abreast of and to continue to monitor. 

The basic argument goes something like this: when discussing technology, experts stress that is only a tool. Increasingly that tool could also be called a bridge or key. Technology opens doors that were previously closed, democratizes information, and makes the impossible…possible. MOOCs (massive open online courses), online degrees, digital libraries, wireless campuses, widespread, inexpensive devices, online communities, adaptive assessments are just a sample of innovations tech has facilitated in education. According to IBM’s “5 in 5” for 2013, (its top five innovation predictions in the next five years), by 2018, “The Classroom Will Learn You.” Or more explicitly, technologies in the classroom will assess students’ skills and learning styles, and adapt progressively to meet their needs – the height of individualized learning. Is that big brother “HAL” frightening or is it remarkably exciting?

Modern technology has also facilitated a growing movement in online education at the K through 12 levels, which is the subject of Education Transformation by Ron Packard. Also called an EMO (educational management organization) since it manages a number of charter schools nationwide, K12 has the largest number of enrolled students in the country. 

Since its creation in 2000, Packard has grown K12 from an outlier start-up to a $522-million-revenue company delivering kindergarten through high school courses to individuals, homeschoolers, private schools, and all forms of public schools, including virtual charter and hybrid schools. The company provides its users with curriculum, equipment such as laptops and printers, course-specific materials, and access to teachers, experts, and online communities. K12 staff also train parents who act as “learning coaches” for lower and middle school students. The majority of funding comes from taxpayers. The government reimburses online schools per student (around 60 to 70 percent of what they pay for a child in a brick and mortar school, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning or iNACOL).

It should come as no surprise that in Education Transformation, Packard defends the benefits and explores the possibilities of online education. He also responds to criticisms about online education and for-profits working in education, and makes predictions for future trends. Packard begins his argument with a familiar dilemma: the current state of the country’s public education system, and the failure of decades of education reform. Since the 1960s, the government has doubled the amount it spends per student and halved teacher-student ratios; all with disappointing results. He describes the United States as a nation in crisis with half of students in urban schools never graduating and doomed to a life of poverty and/or crime. Like many before him, Packard believes education is the great equalizer for the individual, and a critical component for national prosperity. The United States requires a well-educated, highly skilled workforce to compete in the global economy. Education needs a transformation and online courses can play a significant role in that change. 

Packard argues that schools are no longer tied to brick and mortar buildings or teacher/student ratios. In online schools, students can take courses from home independently at their own pace, or work virtually with a group and occasional teacher input. Students gain flexibility as to when and where they work, plus a broader choice of electives. Gifted children can work ahead; students struggling in a subject can move at their own pace. 

Packard details a number of K12’s early projects as case studies. From virtual charter schools in Wisconsin and Ohio to hybrid online schools in Pennsylvanian and California, he shows the many ways online courses can be used in education. He also offers data in his book from K12 showing student gains after moving from traditional classrooms to online classrooms. Critics dispute some of the numbers saying many students in online schools lag behind their public school counterparts.

However, Packard says assessing K12 students based on grade level tests is a poor measure. Many of its students enroll to recover credits after they have fallen behind. These students’ gains are more accurately captured in progress reports, rather than a final score. Plus, he admits that online schools are not right for everyone. The lower and middle school programs require significant parental involvement and students in high school must be motivated and willing to put in the hours. 

As for online courses in general, a study from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, which compared students learning in online or blended courses to those learning only face-to-face, found that the online students did perform better. However the study also noted that teacher/child relationships were critical, even online, and that more research was needed.

Despite its critics, online schools such as K12 are challenging public schools to innovate. According to Education Week, online learning enrollment has grown by around 30 percent a year since 2000. According to iNACOL, 31 states have statewide full time online schools, and single and multi-district blended and online programs are the largest and fastest growing segment. Schools say the top reasons they offer online learning is to supplement available curriculum and allow students to recover course credits. Of the more than 1.8 million students enrolled in online schools more than half (67%) are seeking to recover credits, while the rest are seeking an alternative to their public schools or advanced placement courses. In Pennsylvania where K12 has 16 virtual charter schools, many public school districts are adding their own virtual academies to compete. 

While much of Education Transformation is devoted to K12 — its journey, successes, and struggles — independent schools can gain insight into the future of online courses, or at least Packard’s predictions. He predicts courses will be delivered digitally, and textbooks will disappear by 2023. Foreign language will become a staple in elementary schools due to the need for the United States to be globally competitive, the availability of online courses, and science that children absorb language most effectively at an early age.  He envisions the growth of online and hybrid schools, which will ultimately attract around five to ten percent of all students. Ten percent is an alarming number as it is the percentage of students enrolled in nonpublic schools across the country. Although Packard doesn't predict where the five to ten percent of students will originate, it is likely that at least some will come from the group of families likely to be involved with nonpublic education – clearly this calls for accurate predictions that can be relied upon (not predictions that are based on bias).  

Meanwhile every high school student will take some courses online, especially electives, which, Packard predicts, will lessen the pressure on schools to expand their infrastructure and hire more teachers. The ability for students to complete advanced courses through online media will lead to a blurring between high school and college, as ambitious students earn more college credits while in high school. In fact, iNACOL says 36 states are currently moving toward competency education programs. High school graduation rates will increase since students have a flexible and accessible way to recover credits, and colleges will move toward three-year programs that are more cost efficient. Vocational education will explode with more students looking to learn a trade, rather than pursue a liberal arts degree. And, online learning will facilitate lifelong learning, as the speed of change in the 21st Century requires adults to continually update their skill sets. Lastly, school communities will become increasingly global. 

In the independent school community, a growing number of schools have organized non-profit consortiums or associations to deliver the online courses. Two examples are the Global Online Academy (GOA) and Online School for Girls (OSG). As Dr. T.J. Locke, Head of School at Isidore Newman (which participates in the GOA) in New Orleans says,

I believe it is our role as educators to prepare students for the rapidly changing technological landscape. They will need to learn that new levels of persistence, organization, and collaboration are expected of them in today's world. Schools always talk about preparing students for the 21st Century. We are already in the second decade of the century, so it is time to start seeing the results of this important change.

The OSG consortium has grown from four founding schools in 2009 to more than 80 partner schools nationwide. OSG’s curriculum is designed around the science of how girls learn, with an emphasis on subjects where girls are historically underrepresented, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum. OSG offers numerous AP courses in English, math, science, and language arts, plus specialties such as Genetics, iOS App Development, Psychology, Marine Science, and Macro and Microeconomics.

“I think online courses are and will continue to be a great way for independent schools to supplement their curriculum in a cost effective manner,” said Lorri Palko, Director of Finance and Operations for OSG. “The number of schools engaging in online learning continues to grow. I think blended courses, online courses, and reduced seat time will become a permanent part of how a child experiences education in the future.”


In Education Transformation, Packard touches on the many battles he and K12 have faced. He attributes much of the conflict to public school districts resisting change or protecting their turf. K12 has faced numerous lawsuits from organizations such as teacher unions, which accused it of taking advantage of the system and delivering a substandard product to students. However while previous indictments have surrounded the legitimacy of a virtual school, or how much money they should receive, recent allegations are more serious. A class-action lawsuit filed last June by former employees claims K12 previously inflated enrollments at many of its Pennsylvania schools in order to downplay churn and keep public dollars.

Also in January, Packard stepped down as CEO of K12 and announced plans to pursue a start-up that will focus on global online courses for students K through college.

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