K12, the largest online primary and secondary school in the U.S., is under investigation by the Florida Department of Education after allegations surfaced that the company employed uncertified teachers. The investigation alleges that K12 used uncertified teachers, who were supposed to be overseen by a certified teacher—the uncertified teacher was known as the “teacher of class” and the certified teacher known as the “teacher of record.”
The usage of teachers-of-record is a violation of Florida state law. The investigation began after officials at Florida’s Seminole County School District raised questions about whether the company was using uncertified teachers, despite a 2009 statement from the Florida Department of Education expressly forbidding the practice, Reuters reported.
A parent survey conducted by the Seminole County School District, later obtained by the non-profit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) and, NPR-funded StateImpact Florida, show that K12′s usage of teachers-of-record was so widespread that only 36% of Seminole County parents said that their child’s teacher was the same teacher listed in K12′s documents.
Despite concerns that the K12′s alleged fraud may spread far beyond the borders of Seminole County other school districts may have a problem detecting it. One of the main reasons the fraud was able to be uncovered in Seminole County is that the school district has a policy requiring virtual teachers to sign class rosters attesting that they taught those students, the Associated Press reported.
Seminole County’s policy led K12 manager’s to write to teachers asking them to sign off on class rosters that included students they had never taught. In a Feb. 15, 2011 email to teachers, a K12 manager explained that the company was asking them to sign rosters filled with students they hadn’t taught because they were “qualified to teach that subject and we need you to put your name there,” StateImpact Florida reported.
One teacher was asked to sign off on a list of 112 students when she’d only taught seven of them. K12 signed for the students, over her refusal, and submitted the records to Seminole County. Records that certified the protesting teacher had taught the students, WPTV reported.
After news of Florida’s investigation broke, K12 issued a response that said the company considers the accusations raised to be “very serious,” that it had “conducted an internal investigation” into the matter, and “does not believe that the conclusions drawn in the Seminole County [parent survey] are correct.” The company went on to say that “it looks forward to continued cooperation with the Florida Department of Education’s Inspector General” as the office completes its work and that any conclusions reached “prior to the completion of that work are premature.”
K12′s problems in Florida are the latest in a long line of controversies that have battered the $864 million publicly traded company. Over the last year, the company, which was founded in 2000 by former Goldman Sachs banker Ronald J. Packard with a $10 million investment from junk-bond king turned philanthropist Michael Milken, has faced investigations and criticism across the country.
A December 2011 investigation by the Arizona Republic found that K12, which sells educational products and services to 150 school districts in the state, had low student retention rate and had previously used workers in India to evaluate student essays. K12 said that they had discontinued the practice of having overseas employees evaluate student writing in 2008, and denied that it was a cost-cutting move.
The New York Times reported that nearly 60% of students at K12′s Agora Cyber Charter School were a grade level behind in math, nearly 50% trailed in reading, one-third do not graduate on time, and “hundreds of children, from kindergarteners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.” The Times found that part of the problems with student performance could be traced to K12′s low pay and high class load for teachers, some high school teachers managed more than 250 students.
A Washington Post investigation found that at K12′s Colorado Virtual Academy only 12% of students graduated on time, the average on-time graduation rate for the state of Colorado was 72%. The company’s Ohio Virtual Academy had an on-time graduation of 30%, compared to a statewide average of 78%.
The story repeated itself at K12′s Tennessee Virtual Academy. Since opening in 2011 the Tennessee Virtual Academy has ranked among the bottom 4% of districts in the state, The Tennessean reported. Only 16.4% of Tennessee Virtual Academy students scored as proficient on the math portion of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, a state wide standardized test.
In the reading portion of the TCAP 39.3% scored as proficient or advanced, the Chattanooga Times-Free Press reported. The school also received a ‘one’—the lowest possible score—on the state’s five-point assessment.
In addition to the low graduation rates and high student-to-teacher ratios, the Georgia Department of Education has given K12 until Oct. 31 to comply with state and federal laws for disabled and special education students, the North Carolina political blog The Political Pulse reported. In an Aug. 7 letter to K12 the Georgia School Superintendent informed the company that if they fail to comply he will revoke their charter.
K12′s problems have not been limited solely to primary and secondary schools, the company’s Aventa Learning courses were removed from the NCAA’s list of approved education providers. Aventa Learning is a popular credit-recovery program utilized by student athletes who are interested in going to Division I and Division II schools.
Documents obtained by The Financial Investigator, an investor website that regularly covers K12, explain that the NCAA’s decision was based upon a review of documents from two students and that the governing body found that student interaction with course material fell under the threshold for the “minimum timeframe spent online in completing a course.”
Among the documents published by the Investigator was an internal email that was sent Aug. 30 from K12′s registrar office and showed that the company, which may have known about the problems as early as July 27, had yet to inform students. According to the email students were “coming back to the Registrar stating that the NCAA [was] requesting information from them” that documented students’ grades, time interacting with course material, and completed assignments for “each and every course” taken.
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