Cyber Schools Are Much Worse Than You Think

When I first started working at a cyber school I thought they were the future of education, and I still do. But the problem is that they are only started by for-profit companies who try to run them like businesses. So the top priority becomes customer satisfaction instead of student learning. The results are hard to measure, but I fear that they are worse than anyone suspects.

The curriculum is touted as first class material, designed by experts. In truth our school purchases whatever it can get from third party vendors. There isn’t much stuff out there. Most cyber schools get their curriculum from K12, a company started by William Bennett, a former federal Secretary of Education. My school gets the majority of its high school material from a mail order company called Aventa.

When Aventa creates a course it is fairly bare bones. They choose a textbook from one of the major textbook companies, and cut it up into lessons. The lesson will contain a few paragraphs introducing the topic, they will have the students read a section of a chapter, they will ask the student to do a few problems from the book, and lastly, there will  be some form of graded assessment, taken from textbook review problems. That is all.

I don’t know who Aventa employs to do this cutting and pasting but judging by the results I do not think they are subject matter specialists. Nor do I think they have training or experience in education. The introductory paragraphs read like they are written by someone who barely has a grasp of the material. Furthermore, the selection of questions that are included on the tests and quizzes is unusual. The textbook companies create test banks of hundreds and hundreds of questions because they want to be all things to all teachers. They will rewrite the same question ten, twenty times and include all versions in the bank because different teachers will prefer different versions. They don’t expect one teacher to create a test and use two versions of the same question. But, unfortunately, the Aventa people do. For example, on a quiz for one of my classes, say the chapter has five main and ten secondary topics, the first four problems ask the same exact question just worded a little differently. Also, the question comes from one of the secondary topics. The next four questions are, again, the same question reworded four different ways, and from another secondary topic. That is the entire quiz, eight mostly multiple choice questions from two ancillary topics. This is the only assessment from the most important chapter of the class.

So they aren’t subject matter experts, but there is also a reason to assume that they don’t have any education training. The textbooks have chapter review questions and they have chapter test questions. These are two different types of questions. Review questions tend to be open ended, they can have many different answers. They are meant to get the student thinking, to engage them. We call them formative questions. The test questions are used to measure a student’s learning. They are called summative questions. One of the first things we learn in education is the difference between formative and summative questions and when to use each. But for some reason the Aventa quizzes and tests are taken from the formative chapter review questions. And to top it off they seem to choose the most awkwardly, or erroneously, worded ones. Sometimes I show the questions to other teachers or friends and family and they have a hard time figuring out what the question is asking, but even if they do their answer almost never matches the “official” answer I am only supposed to give credit for.

There is one more major problem with the Aventa curriculum has that makes me think they have no experience teaching. Like I said before, the textbook companies like to throw everything and the kitchen sink into their books so they can please everyone. This is also true with the chapter topics, they include chapters on every possible topic of a subject so that the same book will cover all the standards of the state of California, plus all the standards of the state of Texas, plus all the standards of the state of Pennsylvania, and so on. That way they only have to publish one book. Teachers can then pick and choose the chapters they want so that they cover their particular state standards and still have time to go into detail in a few subjects. Not Aventa, they include every single chapter of every single book they use. This means that a chapter only gets about a week of time, just enough to give it the most cursory of inspections. So the students don’t really learn anything they just memorize some superficial facts, and it on to the next topic.

You could go into any high school in the country and select a teacher at random, have him or her pick a textbook and cut it up into lessons and you would have a better curriculum than what we purchase from Aventa. But my company needs a product that they can market. If the most important factor in education is the teacher then they have no product, every school has teachers. So they treat the Aventa curriculum as if it were the gold standard even though they know it is substandard. And they treat their teachers as if they were chimps banging on a keyboard.

Experts at the corporate office then cut-and-paste the curriculum into our learning management system(lms), the portal from which the students download their lessons. If there is any extra material that comes with the textbooks, such as animations or worksheets, they will embed a few into the lessons. The people at the top of the curriculum department are PhDs, without classroom experience, but the rest are just data entry clerks with no education training or experience. I have had several frustrating email conversations with them. By the time the curriculum gets to me it has been copied and recopied and has many, many typos, misstatements, and inaccuracies. There is no quality control. The teachers are told to review the lessons as we cover them, but we are given no time. We are to email the data clerks when we find errors. This creates a very adversarial relationship. The only time we contact them is to point out their mistakes and give them more work. In turn they are hostile and refuse to make our changes. Once a clerk refused to make a change I suggested because the typo was also in the textbook. The error was so obvious I found myself questioning if the clerk had even graduated high school.

It goes beyond just typos, the teachers are not allowed to change anything about the curriculum. When teachers log into the lms we are given the ability to grade assignments and email students and that is about it. What this means is that every one of our students across the nation gets the exact same curriculum, no matter what their strength or weaknesses, no matter their learning style, no matter their level. Our curriculum department tries to create three tracks out of the Aventa courses but all they do is cut out a couple chapters. So if the advanced class covers all twenty chapters of a textbook, the regular class will do eighteen chapters, and the remedial has sixteen.

Just as the Aventa curriculum is bare bones, so is the lms. A student doesn’t even have to look at a lesson, all they have to do is click on a button that says the lesson is complete and we have to take their word for it. However, the worst part of the lms is the tests and quizzes. The students can look at a test as many times as they want without taking it. Some of the students print out the test, search through the textbook or wikipedia for the answers, and then take the test at a later time. That is the best case scenario. A lot of the students cut and paste the questions into websites like Yahoo Answers and other users will give them the answer. Some cut and paste the entire test. And some students cut and paste the answers into their tests without even reading either of them. I know this because teachers will monitor Yahoo Answers and when a students posts a test they will post answers, answers that are obvious jokes. And some of my students will have these joke answers on their tests. When the corporate office learned of this all they did was warn the teachers not to post anything and that they might be guilty of copyright infringement.

When I first learned of Yahoo Answers it seemed as if about 20% of my students cheated on that first test.  But then I started to keep track and I noticed that the 20% who cheated on the second test were not the same students who cheated on the first. Over the years some of the students have gotten better and better at cheating and it is hard to find the websites that they use but I know they are sharing answers somehow because I will get 40 students making the exact same three mistakes on a problem. Add to that the fact that some bricks and mortar teachers post the entire chapter review problems, with answers, on their websites, so that their students can review for a test at home. The textbook companies make it easy for them, they will supply a cd so all the teachers have to do is copy a file onto their web server. That is another reason why we should not be using the review questions for our tests. Some of my students have found these and I get test answers that exactly match the textbook answers, word for word. The really bright students will change a few words, and intentionally miss a few multiple choice questions, but I can still tell. Now when I grade I don’t even have to look things up, I know that this student is using Yahoo Answer, that that student paraphrased wikipedia, and the third is using some dark site which I haven’t found yet but I’ve seen his wrong answer a hundred times before, character for character, down to the bad punctuation. My estimation of how many are cheating has grown, from 40% to 60% to 80% to 100%. At 95% I told myself, “Ok, the majority of your students are cheating and there is nothing you can do about it, but you have this core group of students who are really smart and enthusiastic about learning, and don’t cheat because they don’t need to. And you know they are learning because you speak to them every week and they understand the material. Focus on those students.” But last year I caught several of these smartest students in the school cheating. It broke my heart. I know that they only did it because they were really busy with extracurricular activities, they feel like they know the material well enough anyway, and they consider the tests to be just busy work for them. But if they really knew the material as well as they thought they did they wouldn’t have needed to cheat. My school is hurting even the very best of its students.

The corporate office has a fleet of programmers working on the lms. It would be very easy for them to devise a way to make it impossible for the students to cheat. But they don’t want to, probably because they figure that those students will just drop out and we won’t get their tuition from the state government. It is ironic that some of our teacher training courses are hired out to a third party where it is impossible for us to cheat. We have to watch the videos all the way through and answer the questions correctly, right there on the spot or we don’t get credit for the course and have to take it over again.

I first learned of Yahoo Answers and sites like it from another teacher. The school administration and corporate office would rather just ignore the cheating. They turn it back onto the teachers and say that we should be doing phone calls with the students and we should  be able to tell from the conversation if the student is cheating. From time to time I point out Yahoo Answers to a new teacher and they are completely surprised even though they usually have been working for us for more than a year.

Several years ago the teachers put pressure on the administration to create a procedure for reporting and keeping track of the incidents of cheating. What they came up with was so onerous that most teachers would only report the most egregious cases. If twenty of my students used the same answer from Yahoo Answers I didn’t think it would be fair to bust just one of them. So I would follow the procedure for all twenty, made the calls, sent the emails, filled out the forms, and logged everything. It would take more than a full day to do all twenty. And we were not given time to do this, so I would fall a day behind with my work and have to make it up on my own time. The principals were supposed to keep track of this list and if a student showed up three times, take “administrative action”. I doubt if any of the principals looked at the list once. I have never seen or heard evidence of any action being taken against anyone on the list. However, the teachers who did the reporting were given more and more work. We don’t use the system much any more. I doubt the new teachers even know that it exists.

There is another system in place that is supposed to verify if a student is doing the work. The teachers are to call each of their students twice a year and give them a pop quiz. This is the part of our jobs which takes the most time. A teacher will usually spend more than 50% of their day making phone calls. It is also the majority of our performance review. If we do not get two successful calls with each and every student we get a negative review. Some days we cannot make any calls because we are out doing other things, state testing, marketing, field trips. So on the days when we are available to make call we need to make a minimum of ten calls. Students can be away from home, sleeping, or just not answering. So in order to get ten successful calls we need to make about fifty calls. But we can’t just make the call, we have to fill out paperwork for every attempt, even if no one answers. Making ten unsuccessful calls can take an hour. Teachers also have to hold class and grade papers, they rarely have more than four hours per day to devote to calls. The reason I mention all of this is that when we do manage to get a student on the phone we rarely can spend more than five minutes with them. We need to ask them questions that they can answer immediately, without thinking about them.

If we give a student a failure for a phone quiz they go on a list, just like the cheating list. And just like the cheating there is no evidence that anything is ever done about it. The principals put pressure on us to not give any phone quiz failures. Just like with cheating is seems as if those teachers who consistently give students failures are given more and more work by the principals. Once a principal even told all of the teachers that we were not supposed to give any student a failure. If they couldn’t answer the questions we were to log it as a tutoring phone call. This leaves one to wonder, if we are not to fail anyone what is the purpose of the call?

I have been reading our school’s charter and annual reports that are available on the department of education’s website and I have come up with a theory. It is not hard to look at cyber schools and see the weak spot, we have no idea if the student enrolled with us is the actual person who is doing the work. I think the department of education would also be able to see this and they would not approve our charter. So the school’s founders put the phone quiz into the charter to ensure the approval. And our administration makes us do as many as we can possibly do, even if it interferes with actual education. But they don’t want us to actually give any failures because that would mean more work for them. And if we have too many, it might show the department of education that our school doesn’t work.

The facts that the teachers are given no time for the calls, nothing is done with the failures, and we are pressured not to fail anyone, motivate the teachers to give really, really easy quizzes. Quizzes that a fifth grader could answer. And if they still can’t answer we give them hints and prod them along.

The students have various ways to get around the phone quizzes. One or two of the students in my class can answer my questions straight up, and sometimes they laugh because the questions are so easy. More commonly, the students delay while they look up the question in their textbook or on wikipedia. Sometimes I can hear the pages flipping in the background. Sometimes they repeat the question as if they are talking to themselves but I can hear them talking to someone else. Some students will answer but they will answer questions that you didn’t ask, or they turn it around and ask a question of you. Like I say, the teachers are motivated to let them pass, so instead of telling them they can’t do any of the above we work with them to get the solutions.

Another tactic is to just not do any work until the end of the semester. This may seem counterintuitive, but if the student hasn’t done any work we can’t ask them any questions. When we call them on the phone all we can do is tell them to get started doing their work. So they wait. Some of them wait until the last week of the semester to turn in anything. If these students actually did the work assigned this would be impossible. All they can do is cut and paste their assessment answers from Yahoo and mark the lessons complete. During this last week the teachers are very busy grading. Most of the students are behind with their lessons, some only a couple weeks, some are fifteen weeks behind. And they all have to complete their lessons that last week. So the teachers spend every minute of the day grading as fast as we can for twelve hours or more. There is no time to make phone calls. And there is no time to check and see if they are cheating, or do anything about it.

However, the majority of students get around the phone quizzes by just not answering their phones. They know our numbers and they will program their phones to ignore our calls. I will call them twice, once with my listed number and then, if they don’t answer, with an unlisted number and they usually answer the second time. But that only works once. Sometimes they will just hang up on us and blame it on the phone.

As with the cheating and failure list we tell the principals when we haven’t been able to reach a student after trying five times. This time the principals will take action. They have an array of tools that are not made available to the teachers. They can even lock the student out of the lms. That gets the students attention really quickly. But as with the other lists, if we give them too many names they get grumpy with us and start to assign us more busy work. Rarely, they will kick a student out of school, but from the teachers’ perspective it almost seems arbitrary who gets kicked out and who doesn’t.

I find the phone calls to be very demoralizing. I can waste hours calling and calling and not getting anyone on the phone. Then when I do get a student it is very clear that they haven’t learned anything. A little while ago I was able to listen to a second grade teacher give a few of her students a phone quiz. I was shocked to hear that one of her questions was similar to one that I ask my students. And it sounded like her students were doing a better job than mine. I became a teacher because I wanted to do something good with my life, I wanted to leave this world a little better for having me in it. But I feel I am stuck in a job where I do more harm than good. Our students’ learning is less than zero. We are teaching them to procrastinate and cheat, and that they are entitled to a diploma without doing any of the work.

The Mission Statement

I have written and rewritten this intro trying not to sound too negative, but the whole reason that I am starting this blog and getting involved is that I see a problem. The progressive education movement in the U.S. has been stuck in a quagmire for the past 20 years. Maybe in a future post I will detail why I think this is and what caused it, but for now I want to focus on solutions.

Computers and the internet have changed education, but it has been a slow and mostly superficial change. We still teach with the same methods and models; we have just ported some things online. For example, when doing a research paper, instead of taking the class to the library, we give them each a laptop so they can do their research on the internet.

But we could do so much more. The classic example from business I can think of is Walmart. They were not the first retailer to use computers to keep their inventory. But they revolutionized the industry by using them to analyse what products sold in various types of neighborhoods and how much of each product they should keep on the shelves at the different locations.

Curriculum is being uploaded to the internet at a very rapid pace, and that would be the first step, but it needs to be organized into courses and modularized. Each standard would have several modules, each teaching through a different mode. So the teacher and parent could choose a series of modules to individualize the curriculum to that student. Because we would have a vast bank of curricular material the student would no longer be forced to do the exact same activity that all their classmates do. The particular activity that each student would do would be tailored to their learning style. The curriculum would be available anywhere the student went, if they changed schools the curriculum would follow with them. And then you could truly have longitudinal data because you could not only keep track of how well a student learned but what exact lesson they learned from. Best of all, it would be free for anyone to use. So every child throughout the world would have access to a first class curriculum.

The structure of schools can also be optimized to improve education. The size of high schools has grown because of the need to hire specialized teachers. But their services, lectures, grading, etc., can be delivered online. Activities such as textbook reading, laboratories, practice work, etc., can be done asynchronously by the student. All that would be needed is an in-person education expert to make sure the students stay on task and get help when they need it. School size could be as little as ten students. This would reduce many of the problems endemic in modern high schools such as drugs and violence. And eliminate many of the administrative tasks like organizing a fleet of school buses.

So that is my idea, we should go back to the one room schoolhouse style of school. I think it is superior in just about every way. A student would stay with a facilitator for four or five years, so they would really get to know each other. The facilitator would easily be able to individualize the curriculum in consultation with the expert teachers. The classroom would consist of students on different grade level. At times they would get together to do non-grade specific activities. The older kids would mentor the younger ones, which would be good for both.

I could go on and on.