Online schools recieve critical reactions

Lindsey Davis/Staff Writer

Wasting time on the Internet is part of a new-world life. Imagine doing that seven hours a day, five days a week, for 13 years. That is what some Iowa students may be starting to do with the institution of online K-12 schools.

While wasting time is certainly not the intention, according to a recent New York Times study, the success rate of online schools certainly seems to fit that mold. Nearly 60 percent of students enrolled in a cyber school are behind grade level in math. Almost 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. Within months of enrolling, hundreds drop out.

With all these negative figures, why are two Iowa school districts pursuing this very wrong path in education? Kids mean money.

Clayton Ridge Community School District (Guttenburg) and the CAM (Cumberland, Anita, Massena) School District have partnered with K12 Inc. and Connections Academy to offer a completely online education for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Because of these partnerships, students from any Iowa district can enroll in the online schools.

When a student enrolls, nearly all the public money accumulated for the child’s education ends up in the pockets of the out-of-state companies.

It costs almost $6,000 per pupil in tax payer money, but the state ends up keeping only 3 percent of that. Where does the other 97 percent go? To the for-profit companies, of course.

Many schools already face harsh budget cuts. Some worry that siphoning more money away is doing nothing to help improve Iowa schools.

Not only do online schools mean money problems, but legality issues too. Iowa school districts are in chains to “Dillon’s Rule,” which means they are only allowed to do what the law clearly says they can. The Iowa Code states that schools cannot operate completely online. Somehow CAM and Guttenburg got around these rules. Iowa Department of Education communications director Staci Hupp explained how this can happen.

“Iowa law provides a different pathway through which school districts have the authority to develop online schools. It is through this pathway that the CAM and Clayton Ridge school districts are moving forward with online programs. The two districts did not need department approval to launch these online programs; they are arrangements between those districts and the online learning providers they will contract with. The department’s role is to make sure those programs follow state law,” Hupp said.

So there are loopholes to almost everything. Dan Conrad, Cedar Falls Director of Secondary Schools, sees a different side to this issue.

“Several years ago, the state attorney general ruled that this practice [online curriculum] violated the laws of open enrollment. It is my hope that this will happen again. The money that districts receive from the state to educate students should be used to hire and support highly qualified teachers, and not go towards for-profit companies,” Conrad said.

There are a lot of opinions on the online schools, but while havoc occurs because of the CAM and Guttenburg districts, the state’s education office is looking to more online learning.

“The Governor’s education proposal supports the expansion of Iowa Learning Online, a state system that already provides high-quality online instruction to students across the state.

The goal is to create a state clearinghouse through which school districts can choose to buy high-quality online courses taught by Iowa certified teachers. Technology has virtually changed every aspect of our lives; we must adapt in education by expanding quality online learning as an option for Iowa students,” Hupp said.

Iowa lawmakers point to some other bright side to cyber schooling. Online schools allow students to complete coursework at any time during the day. They can go back and re-watch a lesson or lecture if they are not understanding the concept. Students would have the ability to turn in assignments electronically, and their skills in technology would be enhanced.

For regular home-schooling, Internet academies like K12 may also be a smart choice for some students.

“The education system must adapt to the learning needs of Iowa’s children, and we believe that online learning is the right choice for some families. Technology has changed how we live, communicate and work. Online learning is expanding rapidly nationwide. We must adapt in Iowa with quality online learning options for students,” Hupp said.

Though cyber school may be the right fit for some, others argue that it will never amount to obtaining a “normal” education. Gene Glass, a Research Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education, discourages the idea of online schooling.

“The online student is missing so much about what education can and should be: what it is like to get to know a really excellent teacher personally who will affect his or her life years after high school; how one’s peers struggle and succeed to help each other; what it feels like to dissect an organism or titrate a solution in the chemistry lab. An online school will never live up to the school that opens its doors and says ‘Come in, join us,’” Glass said.

Some also argue that students enrolled in K-12 online schools will never fully grasp social skills that would naturally form in a classroom with 20 other kids. The opportunity to thrive and participate in extracurricular activities would be nixed.

“I believe having regular, face-to-face interaction with teachers and other students allows students to learn at higher levels and provides a more realistic experience for what students will face when they enter the work force. Very few careers allow a person to sit at a computer and work in isolation all day. There are also some courses that do not lend themselves to an online curriculum because they require hands-on activities (such as science labs, Industrial Tech, Family Consumer Science, etc.) I also believe students benefit greatly from the social interactions they have with other students, teachers and administrators at school,” Conrad said.

It’s safe to say most of the online K-12 schools are being instituted in rural areas. Most likely there will never be a total online curriculum in the Cedar Falls district. Rather, administrators may plan for more online activities that can coexist with lessons. These could provide additional help and support for struggling students. The idea of incorporating online lessons sits better with people than a full blown online school.

“I would not enjoy having school online because I like the communication aspect of the school day. I also prefer hands on activities like chemistry labs. The difference between a real life lab compared to an online lab is that in the real life you are actually performing the steps and on the online one, you just click what to do. The interaction with peers is an aspect of school that I find important. If school was only online, the social skills of people would be horrible and almost nonexistent,” junior Rachel Nurse said.

The agreement that online schools disable social skills and encourages isolation is nearly country-wide. School may not be where students want to spend seven hours each day, but would they rather be sitting at home for that amount of time staring blankly at a computer screen? Glass puts it best: “There is an exciting world out there beyond the laptop on the kitchen table. Go meet it.”

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