Study, former teacher recount troubling management practices and poor student outcomes
Former California Virtual Academy (CAVA) employee Jan Cox Golovich left her job as an online high school teacher a year ago, when she decided the students she was teaching were being cheated out of an education.
“CAVA lets students fail. They let the kids go a whole year performing poorly in school and then fail. But CAVA has made their money,” said Golovich of the virtual school that is backed by K12, Inc., a Wall Street company that is in the business of making profits off of state education budgets by running online virtual charter schools across the nation – and soon, in North Carolina .
Golovich recounted troubling experiences working for CAVA that closely align with findings of a report released last week  by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
That report, whose author analyzed publicly available data and interviewed teachers and staff at the K12 California virtual school, indicates that CAVA fails in many ways to adequately serve its students.
Poor oversight when it comes to ensuring accurate student attendance, dramatically lower test scores than their traditional public school counterparts and difficulty accessing technology were only some of problems the report found with CAVA and were echoed by Golovich, who was not involved in the compilation of the study.
“I resigned at the end of the year because CAVA’s practices were just deceitful and immoral. It just wasn’t working for the kids,” said Golovich.
Golovich’s story begins in the fall of 2012, when she began working for CAVA at their Sonoma-based online virtual charter school.
“I thought CAVA Sonoma had some really great teachers who worked very hard,” said Golovich of her decision to join California’s largest provider of online virtual education. The K12, Inc.-operated school system operates eleven locations in California, enrolling more than 14,500 students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade who log onto an online educational platform to receive educational instruction.
Golovich, who worked for ten years in the traditional public school system for the Vallejo Unified School District north of San Francisco, was immediately put off by how CAVA administrators pressured teachers to take student attendance.
Administrators required teachers to submit reports once a month verifying students’ daily attendance on the online education platform managed by K12, Inc., said Golovich. Those reports were then turned over to the California Department of Education to receive per pupil state funding. CAVA schools receive nearly $100 million in public education funds from the state, according to California Department of Education data.
“But we weren’t really able to tell how long students were actually logged into the system,” said Golovich. Parents that served as students’ learning coaches simply logged attendance for their kids, and she was forced to simply trust their word that students were online and engaged for the amount of time necessary to succeed in their coursework.
But students’ performance in Golovich’s classes was poor.
“The students were not doing well in my classes, and I was really concerned,” said Golovich. When teachers were gathered at a training offered by K12, Inc. administrators one day, some asked how to see in the online system just how long students were logging in and working.
“One of the tech guys at K12 told us how to see it [how long students were logged in] – and we realized that kids were only logging on for maybe five minutes a day, and yet we were signing off on these attendance reports,” said Golovich.
Now that teachers were aware of just how long – or short – students were working on their classwork, CAVA administrators pressured teachers to begin checking in with parents in order to assess how long students were engaging in offline work, said Golovich.
But that request would entail large amounts of work chasing down every parent on a weekly basis – and Golovich had hundreds of students – so she simply began to keep more accurate attendance on the basis of how long students were logged in.
“My attendance rates went down between 25 and 30 percent,” said Golovich. Other teachers, she said, were afraid to keep honest records because of fear of what CAVA administrators might do. “But I just couldn’t risk my teaching credential by effectively lying,” she said.
The whole debacle led Golovich to resign.
Golovich’s experience with California Virtual Academies didn’t come as a surprise to Shar Habibi, a research and policy director with the Washington, D.C.-based think tank In the Public Interest .
Habibi authored a report, released last week that looked at the management practices and student academic performance at K12, Inc.’s CAVA schools finding that the online virtual school’s students suffer from a poorly resourced academic environment that allows many to fall through the cracks entirely.
“In every year since it began graduating students, except 2013, CAVA has had more dropouts than graduates,” according to data analyzed in the report that is publicly available through the California Department of Education.
During the past four years, CAVA has graduated on average only 38 percent of its students. The graduation rate for California’s traditional public schools during the same time period was 78 percent, according to the study that cited public data.
CAVA students’ performance on standardized tests was also significantly lower than at their traditional public school counter parts. California uses a metric called the Academic Performance Indicator (API) to compare and rank schools’ academic performance, and in 2013, 73 percent of California’s schools fared better than CAVA schools.
CAVA’s head of school, Katrina Abston, responded to the report’s findings in a press release last week.
“The report relies primarily on misinformation from the California Teachers Association (CTA)—the union currently engaged in a coordinated and well-funded distortion campaign to unionize the eleven independent California Virtual Academies charter schools,” said Abston.
Habibi, the report’s author, acknowledged in a phone call with N.C. Policy Watch that In the Public Interest receives some funding from unions – but none from the California Teachers Association or its parent union, the National Education Association. And no one from CTA was involved during the compilation of the study.
“All of the data that we used for this study was public information,” said Habibi, who insisted that researchers were careful about sources and methodology and mostly analyzed publicly available data and interviewed teachers previously or currently employed by CAVA.
Calls and emails to K12, Inc.’s headquarters for this story went unanswered, with the exception of an email from one representative pointing to CAVA’s official response.
In addition to the student attendance fiasco, former CAVA teacher Golovich was also dismayed by her students’ performance on coursework and tests, and her students’ experiences match what was found by the report’s authors.
“My students’ test scores were just so low, it was unacceptable,” said Golovich.
She had a mix of students – some were high achievers who were participating in ambitious sporting programs and needed to be able to complete high school online so they could be successful in their endeavors outside of the classroom. But those students were in the minority.
“Most were students who were failing in brick and mortar schools, and so their parents put them in online schools hoping that will save them. But that actually makes things worse – when you’re home by yourself, it is just not going to work, being home alone and trying to catch up,” said Golovich.
When students performed poorly, CAVA was not quick to take action and withdraw students in an effort to find them a better education alternative, according to multiple teachers who spoke with In the Public Interest.
“At an in person staff meeting at the beginning of February, we were told that for a student working just a little bit, there would be no withdrawal, that it is not in the student’s best interest. But the student loses a semester of credit while CAVA collects ADA [state per pupil funding]. I do not know of a student who has been withdrawn,” said Cara Bryant, a veteran teacher at CAVA Sonoma.
Why are students’ experiences at K12, Inc.-backed California Virtual Academies important to North Carolinians?
Last month, North Carolina’s State Board of Education green lighted K12, Inc. to set up shop in the Tar Heel state after years of trying to open a virtual charter school in the state. The school, called “N.C. Virtual Academy,” will be one of two virtual charters (the other backed by education behemoth Pearson) to participate in a four-year pilot program enacted by lawmakers last year.
Combined, the two virtual schools could receive up to $66 million a year in taxpayer funds by 2017, if enrollment reaches a combined 6,000 students by then, according to the Associated Press .
As state board members considered K12, Inc.’s pitch to operate in NC, several did express concern about K12’s business practices – often negatively portrayed in the media – and their students’ poor academic outcomes. But the board felt it had little choice but to approve the two virtual charter school applicants – the only applicants – because the law required the pilot to being this fall.
Elsewhere around the country, K12, Inc.’s other virtual schools have experienced the following:
Poor academic outcomes. In every state where K12, Inc. operated virtual schools and public information was readily available (AZ, CO, GA, NV, OH, PA, SC, TX, WA), virtual students’ math and reading standardized test scores were significantly behind the state average, according to the report.
High student turnover. Also known as “churn,” twenty-three of K12’s students drop out within the first year, and 67 percent leave within two years.
The Tennessee education commissioner recently called for their K12, Inc.-backed virtual charter school to be shut down for extremely low academic performance .
And the NCAA recently announced it will no longer accept coursework in its initial eligibility certification process from 24 virtual schools that are affiliated with K12, Inc. – including all eleven CAVA schools.
In spite of a wealth of information that points to K12, Inc. running a business operation that has poor returns by failing to adequately educate students, yet continues to profit mightily from state taxpayers, some are still enthusiastic about the prospect of the virtual charter school coming to North Carolina, including Rep. Larry Pittman, a supporter of virtual charters.
“We need to do something different,” said Pittman after an education committee meeting Tuesday. “Just because some states had a bad experience doesn’t mean that will happen here, and we have to put some trust into the hands of parents who will do the right thing for their child.”
Former CAVA teacher Jan Cox Golovich sees things differently.
“The taxpayers are getting cheated and our kids are getting cheated by this model.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.