TCS Daily

Teach the Children Well

By Joanne Jacobs - September 9, 2002 12:00 AM

It takes a heap of lessons to make a house a homeschool. Some parent-teachers use prepackaged courses and curricula, and increasingly they're looking to the Internet for their lessons.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett has jumped into this rapidly growing market with K12, a soup-to-nuts curriculum designed for parents to use with their children. Bennett's for-profit company, based in McLean, Virginia, started in 1999 to target homeschoolers with online lessons. However, cyber-charters - public schools that provide lessons over the Internet - are becoming K12's growth market. K12's partnerships with cyber-charters are attracting homeschooling newbies, while drawing flak from militant homeschoolers, who fear "virtual" public schools threaten their independence.

K12 offers daily lessons in language arts, math, history, science, art and music for kindergarten through fifth graders. New grades are being added quickly; K12 will reach 12th grade in a few years. Elementary students are online 20 to 30 percent of the time. The rest of the time is spent working with pencil and paper, drawing, listening to music, conducting experiment and working with phonics tiles and math blocks. Parents get a non-virtual box of textbooks and workbooks, phonics tiles, math manipulatives, magnets, thermometers, magnifying glasses and seeds, maps and globes, prints and art books, music CDs and videos.

K12 evaluates students' math and language skills; children may be advanced in one subject, but need more time in another. The program includes frequent assessments to check students' progress, and access to advice from an experienced teacher. This is not a kid-and-computer system. K12 is a support system for a parent with the time and energy to be a home teacher.

Sandy Johnson, a former public school teacher in northern California, home-schools her three children, who are in kindergarten, fifth and eighth grade. "I'd used bits and pieces of different curricula, but I'd never found anything that I could commit to" before discovering K12, she says.

Johnson likes the way technology is integrated into the curriculum without crowding out other learning activities. "There are programs that use technology, like Switched-On Schoolhouse, but it's all technology," she says. "I don't want my kindergartner sitting in front of a screen all day." K12's design made it easy for Johnson to tailor lessons to her children: Her son is doing a mix of kindergarten and first grade lessons.

"K12 has a clear vision of what ought to be taught," says Michael Kirst, a Stanford education professor who joined the education advisory board. K12 also draws on the Core Knowledge curriculum, developed from E.D. Hirsch's best-selling "Cultural Literacy" series, and Saxon math. Louisa Moats, a nationally known reading expert vets the phonics lessons. Homeschooling parents pay $150 to $300 per course, $895 for a year's worth of academics (language arts, math, science and history) or $1,195 for the academics, art and music. That's more money than most homeschoolers are used to spending; about 1,000 families are using K12.

However, K12 is free to parents who sign up for a K12-affiliated "virtual charter academy" in Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, Colorado or Idaho. It's also available in Florida and Alaska to limited numbers of students, and is being tested for classroom use in brick-and-mortar charter schools in Indianapolis and Chicago. These cyber-schools recruit study-at-home students, who typically get a free computer, printer and Internet connection, and may get access to counselors, sports teams, field trips and other services. K12 provides online lessons and learning materials. Parents may be called "coaches," but essentially they're the teachers. Taxpayers pay the cost, just as they would if the students were studying in a brick-and-mortar schoolhouse. Only it costs less.

More than 7,000 virtual charter students are using K12. Their parents have traded homeschoolers' freedom from regulation for free computers, curriculum and support services.

When Lisa Snell enrolled her son in California Virtual Academy, a K12 partner, she had to file emergency release forms for medical treatment and an emergency contact form - even though she's teaching her own child in her own home. "If the children are entering public school for the first time, they have to have a TB test within 12 months," Snell wrote in Education Weak, her weblog.
She decided the advantages of a no-cost curriculum outweigh the hassles.

But some homeschooling advocates strongly oppose virtual charters. "We've made great grounds in the last couple of decades on home school freedom and we don't want to see us taking a step back," Tom Washburne, direction of the National Center for Home Education, told It's not just that homeschoolers may be lured back to the public system. Hard-core homeschoolers fear the public will confuse homeschoolers with charter students, and demand the same accountability rules for both.

In the March-April issue of Home Education Magazine, Larry and Susan Kaseman argued that case, warning the cyber-charter students must take state tests and may have to prove they're meeting compulsory attendance laws. "Cyber charter schools threaten to change people's understanding of homeschooling and undermine our freedoms by leading to greatly increased regulation of homeschools," they concluded. The Kasemans urged homeschoolers to lobby against the approval of virtual charters in their states - even allying with public school advocates who want to limit competition.

Johnson has seen homeschool groups expel members who sign up for cyber-charters. She sympathizes with long-time homeschoolers who fought for the right to educate their children in their own way. "But the movement's supposed to be about parents choosing how to educate their children," she says. Johnson thinks many homeschoolers will choose a cyber-charter that offers a high-quality curriculum. If California Virtual Academy expands to her county, she'll enroll her children.

K12 has plenty of home-study competitors, including the no-tech Calvert School, and Alpha Omega's LIFEPAC, which includes a Bible class, plus American Education Corporation's high-tech A+nywhere Learning Systems, Keystone National High School, and others.

But there are few options designed for home use and for online delivery that cover the complete K-12 curriculum, as K12 is supposed to do in two to three years. With Bennett, author of the best-selling "Book of Virtues" as its founder, K12 has the chance to develop a strong brand name.

Of course, there's another big-name, education for-profit - Edison Schools, Inc. - and it's struggling to survive in the marketplace. But, unlike Edison, which must fight vicious political battles to implement its school design in the worst public schools, K12 has a business plan that makes sense: Invest in developing a curriculum and let educated, motivated parents do the implementation.

K12 doesn't threaten the status quo like Edison because the supply of parents willing and able to be home teachers is limited. But it's likely that K12's comprehensive curriculum will empower more parents to try teaching their own children, and perhaps encourage more states to authorize virtual charters.



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