The Opposite of TFA: A National Teacher University to Build the Teaching Profession

The Opposite of TFA: A National Teacher University to Build the Teaching Profession

Tom Chu and Billy Roberts

Executive Summary

This policy report outlines a proposal for the National Teacher University (NTU), including both a graduate education program and an undergraduate program, which would be fully funded by the federal government and run by professional educators, researchers, and academics. NTU is designed to functionally resemble the U.S. military academies, with free tuition for all students and a mandatory five year public school teaching commitment after graduation. Specifically, NTU would ensure the presence of three critical aspects of teacher preparation: (1) content knowledge, (2) pedagogical methods and theory, and (3) teaching experience and mentorship.

NTU would benefit U.S. education in the following ways:

  • Build the teaching profession by ensuring teacher commitment.
  • Help increase teachers’ influence in policy by increasing respect for educators.
  • Combat teacher shortages and attrition.
  • Attract more teachers of color and low-income teachers.
  • Establish a model of exemplary teacher training.

Although implementation would be quite difficult, especially given the current political climate, the benefits to our education system would far outweigh any startup or maintenance costs.


Most of us remember having a teacher who truly changed us. Maybe that teacher was special because they got along with you on a personal level; they understood you. Maybe that teacher was special because they showed you what was so interesting about a subject you had never before enjoyed. Maybe that teacher was special simply because they made class a place where you felt comfortable exploring and being yourself. Such an educational experience can have a truly profound impact on the trajectory of a student’s life, and it is not one that should be reserved for only a small subset of students with access to good teachers. As the United States searches for educational reforms that will revitalize our nation’s schools, it is imperative that teacher preparation programs occupy the forefront of reform efforts. If our schools are to provide as many students as possible with transformative educational experiences, teachers must be adequately trained in extensive teacher education programs. In the preface to her book Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs, Linda Darling-Hammond (2012) writes that “one of the most damaging myths prevailing in American education is the notion that good teachers are born and not made.” It is time that the federal government act to dispel this falsehood, advocating for a norm of highly and traditionally trained teachers through the creation of its own teacher preparation program. The national teacher university outlined in this proposal is meant to accomplish exactly that–and we believe that it represents an important step toward ensuring quality teachers for all.


Education policy discourse in the U.S. over the last three decades has increasingly focused on teacher quality and accountability. Around the time of the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, teacher quality and preparation entered the spotlight of policy talk and have since received significant political attention (Lewis & Young, 2013). In 1996, the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future (NCTAF) published an influential report entitled What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future, outlining a vision of reform for teacher preparation programs, among other measures, to improve teacher quality (Hunt, 1996). Teacher quality was once again highlighted in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (2001), which stressed teacher accountability and included provisions that teachers must be “highly qualified” in the subject areas they teach (Redding & Smith, 2016). A wealth of research demonstrates the importance of teacher quality and, specifically, teacher preparation (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Clotfelter, Ladd & Vigdor, 2007; Goldhaber & Brewer, 2000).

Yet, within this broad trend of increasing focus on teacher quality, competing visions for change in the realm of teacher preparation have developed, forming a “professionalization versus deregulation debate” (Lewis & Young, 2013, p. 209). One school of thought holds that “deregulating” the teaching field, by increasing Alternative Certification (AC) pathways, will allow experienced professionals or bright, elite young college graduates with content expertise to enter the teaching profession (Lewis & Young, 2013). Advocates of deregulation originally supported TFA, Relay Graduate School of Education (Relay GSE), and other AC measures because of a belief that these programs would help to alleviate teacher shortages (Kopp, 2001). Their logic held that despite limited preparation, having AC teachers would be much better than having no teachers at all in areas experiencing shortages. It is only more recently that TFA and AC supporters have begun to assert that much of the content of TPPs is superfluous or could be dramatically expedited, and teachers prepared through AC, because of their superior pedigrees, will actually outperform traditionally prepared teachers (Brewer, 2016).

On the other side, Linda Darling-Hammond, NCTAF, and other scholars and organizations advocate for the professionalization of teaching through increased clinical preparation and the standardization of preparation programs (Darling-Hammond, 2005; Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, & Carver-Thomas, 2016; Hunt, 1996). Proponents of professionalization emphasize measures such as new teacher mentoring and induction, in-classroom experience, observation of master teachers, exposure to pedagogical theory and methods, and university-based Traditional Preparation Programs (TPP) (Darling-Hammond, 2005; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Hunt, 1996). They believe that by better preparing teachers and creating a culture of dedication to the profession, TPPs can reduce teacher attrition and improve improve teacher preparedness and efficacy.


In light of this ongoing debate, we add our voices to those in favor of professionalization, as we propose creating the National Teacher University (NTU), a teacher preparation university fully funded by the federal government. NTU would offer a full undergraduate liberal arts curriculum with an additional focus on pedagogy, developmental psychology, educational theory, and student teaching. This undergraduate curriculum would be coupled with a two-year graduate program in education, which would be open to both NTU undergraduates and students from other undergraduate institutions. Attending NTU would be free for all students, and they would receive a monthly stipend for their service–similar to how students at the U.S. military academies receive a tuition-free education and a monthly stipend. But also like the military academies, which require post-graduate military service of their students, students who attend NTU would be contractually obligated to teach in U.S. public schools for five years after graduation.

NTU follows the logic of professionalization, emphasizing more rigorous teacher preparation as the means of improving teacher commitment and efficacy. To some extent, comparing between TPPs and AC programs monolithically is ineffective because there is a huge degree of variation within each category, and focusing on the specifics preparation might be more important (Borman, Mueninghoff, Cotner & Frederick, 2009). However, we still advocate for TPPs, because our vision of exemplary teacher preparation, outlined below, includes extensive training not possible in abbreviated AC programs.

Specifically, as a model, NTU would ensure the presence of three critical aspects of teacher preparation: (1) content knowledge, (2) pedagogical methods and theory, and (3) teaching experience and mentorship.

First, content knowledge is crucial in light of evidence that teachers who have a degree in their subject field perform significantly better than those who do not, particularly in math and the sciences (Goldhaber & Brewer, 1996). Undergraduates at NTU would choose to major in a content area such as history or mathematics, while also completing pedagogical coursework and participating in supervised student teaching. Applicants to the graduate program would be required to have completed a major in a content area or have some content knowledge alongside an education major, such as Mathematics Education. Second, exposure to pedagogical methods and theory is vital to teacher preparation. AC programs usually contain pedagogical instruction, but they emphasize more practical concerns such as classroom management, neglecting pedagogical theory and methods (Redding & Smith, 2016). Both the graduate and undergraduate programs would require such theory and methods coursework, including focuses on child development and training in curriculum selection. New teachers who have received such training feel more prepared and have lower attrition rates than those who have not (Darling-Hammond, Chung & Frelow, 2002; Darling-Hammond, 2010; DeAngelis, Wall, & Che, 2013). Third, both the graduate and undergraduate programs would incorporate clinical experience into candidates’ preparation, which has likewise been shown to contribute to feelings of preparedness and low attrition rates (Darling-Hammond et al., 2002; Darling-Hammond, 2010; DeAngelis et al., 2013). The result of these three aspects of teacher preparation would be to create an attitude of reflective development in a teacher candidate’s pedagogy (Borman et al., 2009). Academic content, child development theory, and pedagogical theory would undergird and inform candidates’ practice in the classroom. Their clinical experiences and interactions with mentor teachers would allow them to constantly improve their practice, eventually entering their own classrooms feeling prepared, confident, and committed to the profession.

Ultimately, in recommending that the federal government create a national teacher university, we hope to address the following issues: a lack of respect for the teaching profession and teachers, which undermines efforts at recruiting and retaining good teachers; a shortage of teachers of color and teachers from low-income backgrounds; and an incoherent and eclectic mix of teacher preparation programs nationally, exacerbated by the diverse range of teacher accreditation qualifications between states.

Professionalization of Teaching Culture

First, the establishment of a national teacher university would build respect for teachers and the teaching profession, creating a culture of commitment and combatting teacher turnover. NTU’s university-based nature, post-graduation service requirement and extensive teaching-specific preparation would lead candidates to view teaching as a respected, lifelong profession. NTU’s service requirement, unlike TFA’s, would come with an expectation, communicated through the university’s mission, publications, media, and faculty, that teachers stay in the classroom indefinitely. As demonstrated in Figure 1, TPP graduates, who make up the about 80% of new teachers generally (Redding & Smith, 2016), are already much more likely than TFA teachers to view teaching as a temporary occupation rather than a lifelong career. This is significant because teachers who view teaching as a lifelong commitment have lower turnover rates and usually only leave the profession for unavoidable events in their personal lives, as opposed to complaints regarding working conditions (Hong, 2010; Donaldson & Johnson, 2011).  Similarly, multiple studies have reported lower attrition rates for graduates of TPPs than for TFA participants (Redding & Smith, 2016; Heilig & Jez, 2010). By lowering the “barriers to entry,” TFA and other AC programs deprofessionalize teaching, slashing teacher commitment (Brewer, 2016). NTU’s model would have the opposite effect, resulting in more teachers staying in the classroom, improving their pedagogy, and lowering the substantial costs of hiring and inducting new teachers.

Figure 1: New Teachers’ Commitment to the Teaching Profession


Source: Donaldson & Johnson, 2011; Farkas, Johnson & Foleno, 2000.

Additionally, NTU would lower teacher turnover and build the teaching profession by ensuring that new teachers are adequately prepared. As mentioned above, NTU’s focuses on content, pedagogy, and in-classroom experience have all been found to help develop confident, capable teachers who are more committed and less likely to leave the profession (Darling-Hammond et al., 2002; DeAngelis et al., 2013). A survey of new teachers (with five or fewer years of experience) even shows that many would support measures similar to the ones NTU would implement (see Figure 2), further bolstering the case for extensive preparation.

Figure 2: New Teacher Opinions on NTU Policies

Source: Farkas, Johnson & Foleno, 2000.

Increasing Teacher Influence

NTU would help create a more teacher-oriented paradigm of educational reform, building respect for teachers. First, creating a well-prepared teacher corps and building respect for the profession would foster a policy environment where teachers’ opinions are valued. From a review of education policy change in the 20th century, Tyack and Cuban (1995) conclude that because of their unique position on the ground, teachers inevitably shape the implementation of all policy. Therefore, effective education reform must be led by teachers, or at the very least, developed in constant consultation with them. In accordance with this, concrete policies, beyond the scope of this paper, would have to be implemented in the U.S. education landscape more generally in order to formally secure teachers’ influence, but the formation of NTU would go a long way towards shifting social perceptions in favor of such policies. Second, NTU would equip candidates with the knowledge to meaningfully contribute to policy discussions. NTU would not espouse any one specific pedagogy or vision of education, instead promoting a culture of critical dialogue between the competing theories of pedagogy and education policy covered in classes. Teachers would carry their knowledge and this culture of contemplation and critical discussion with colleagues into schools, equipping them to collectively change policy. Using the methods laid out above, NTU would invert the TFA’s paradigm of reform, enabling teachers to lead, instead of enabling future leaders to teach.

Amplifying teachers’ voices would also increase teacher satisfaction and lower attrition, since many teachers who choose to leave the profession complain of low autonomy and influence in their workplace (See Figure 3).

Figure 3: Former Public School Teachers’ Comparison of Teaching to Current Profession

Combatting Teacher Shortages and Teacher Attrition

For multiple reasons, the National Teacher University would draw many applicants and therefore help alleviate predicted teacher shortages. The university’s financial scheme would be a major draw for all prospective students, especially those who are low-income. Financial constraints often discourage students from choosing relatively low-wage jobs such as teaching, and can deter students from going to graduate school and even college (Rothstein & Rouse, 2011; Callender & Jackson, 2005). Fully funding tuition for future teachers would partially alleviate this burden by eliminating student loans and debt from the equation, drawing more teachers into the profession. Similarly funded government military academies like West Point draw over ten thousand applications per year and have acceptance rates around 10% (Princeton Review, 2017). The National Teacher University has the potential to enroll a similar number of students, and by eliminating financial concerns and drawing interest, media attention, and prestige to teaching, NTU would go a long way toward filling the massive incoming teacher shortage predicted by Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, and Carver-Thomas (2016).

Also, as discussed previously, NTU would combat shortages by mitigating teacher turnover in the following ways: it would increase teacher commitment and give teachers extensive preparation and experience, fostering feelings of self-efficacy and preparedness that correlate to retention (Darling-Hammond et al., 2002; Darling-Hammond, 2010; DeAngelis et al., 2013).

Providing Pathways for Teachers of Color

NTU’s financial scheme would also result in increased opportunities for people of color. The two year graduate program would be open to applications from all candidates with a bachelor’s degree in a relevant content area. Thus, the National Teacher University would provide a comprehensive yet financially viable pathway for graduates of color and professionals to enter the teaching profession.

Teachers of color have been shown to benefit the education of all students, and especially benefit students of color, as they can better serve as role models, mentors, and advisors because of shared experiences (Irvine, 1988; Villegas & Irvine, 2010; Griffin & Tackie, 2017). But despite these proven benefits, the U.S. teaching force does not reflect the racial diversity of its students, as Black and Latinx teachers, particularly men, are severely underrepresented (Ingersoll & May, 2014). As Figure 4 indicates, the percentage of public school teachers who are non-white has not increased markedly among any group except Hispanic teachers, despite the growth of AC programs over the same time period.

Figure 4: Percentage of Public School Teachers who Are Teachers of Color

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2015

Advocates of AC programs often assert that these kinds of programs are necessary to recruit more teachers of color, providing low-cost pathways for professionals who already hold a bachelor’s degree and want to enter the teaching profession (Madkins, 2011; Whitmire, 2016). However, as one reporter writes, we “can do better for minority teachers than Relay GSE” (Anderson, 2016). Relay GSE, an AC program developed by charter school leaders, and other programs like it, “expedite” coursework on pedagogy, in-classroom experience for teachers, and largely neglect content knowledge, assuming candidates are already proficient (Borman et. al, 2009). This is significant because Ingersoll and May (2014) conclude that shortages of teachers of color persist not because of poor recruitment of teachers of color, but because of poor retention. Teachers who feel unprepared are more likely to leave the profession than well-prepared teachers (Darling-Hammond et al., 2002), so expanding AC programs in the hopes of increasing the percentage of teachers of color would be futile.

Instead, the National Teacher University would provide a comprehensive yet financially viable pathway for people of color to enter the teaching profession. They would receive the in-classroom experience, exposure to pedagogical methods, and mentoring that they, like all teacher candidates, deserve, preparing them for a career in teaching.

Model for Teacher Preparation

Finally, the National Teacher University would be able to serve as a model program for other universities looking for guidance in creating their own curriculum for teacher education. There has recently been significant debate about the quality of traditional teacher preparation programs in the U.S., with the National Council on Teacher Quality issuing a scathing report on their content, structure, and performance (Greenberg, McKee, & Walsh, 2013). This report and others also highlight the large amount of quality variance currently present in preparation programs (both TPP and AC), specifically noting the dearth of high-quality programs and skew towards poor performance. For example, AC programs can vary anywhere from providing teacher candidates with a mere five to six weeks of preparation over a summer, to a two year program with concurrent university coursework, teaching experience, and mentoring (Borman et al., 2009; Darling-Hammond et al., 2002). If the federal government were to establish a nationally sponsored teacher education program, ensuring that its curriculum and philosophy were informed by research and evidence-based practices, it would create a national model for other universities to emulate and look to for reform ideas. Such a centralized structure resembles the system that the education titan Finland currently uses to educate its teachers, wherein universities have autonomy in devising curricula, but the federal government provides them with guiding principles and requirements to ensure consistency and quality outputs (Niemi & Jakku-Sihvonen, 2011).

In addition to modelling an effective teacher preparation program, the National Teacher University would also help to develop a national standard for teacher accreditation. Because of No Child Left Behind (2001) and its Highly Qualified Teachers provision, states across the country lowered their requirements for teachers with content knowledge to become certified and opened the door to a broad array of AC routes (Baines, 2010). This influx of teachers coming from outside the traditional teacher pipeline diluted the quality of teachers in the workforce and has had deleterious effects on education as a whole (Baines, 2010). The National Teacher University would offer a federally endorsed standard for teacher accreditation, which until now has not existed except–marginally–in the vague and inadvertently perverse terms included in the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015).


The National Teacher University would admittedly be a difficult project to develop. Possibly the most daunting challenge is that NTU would require significant startup costs for a campus and facilities, coupled with a large annual budget for faculty and all the expenses of a university. We believe that such a vision is not impossible, though, given the historic success and sustainability of U.S. military academies, with their large budgets, high prestige, and excellent performance. For this to happen, our country simply has to stand by its rhetoric in A Nation at Risk that places education as a national priority on par with defense. Additionally, hiring a full staff of qualified education professors and liberal arts professors for the undergraduate university would be a major challenge. There would likely be high costs associated with recruitment, but, ultimately, we believe that NTU’s model and theory would make it an attractive destination for prominent researchers, academics, and educators. In terms of certification, NTU would have to work with states to offer accreditation to university graduates, which might be difficult in light of the current inter-state variation in certification requirements (Boyd, Goldhaber, Lankford & Wyckoff, 2007). And although we believe that there are sufficient students nationally who would be interested in attending NTU to create a competitive admissions process, it is unclear how much interest the program would draw from applicants in light of the five-year teaching commitment. Of course, the countervailing forces would be the free tuition and the prestige that would ideally accompany a degree from the university.

Critics might object to the fact that the federal government would, in a sense, control the preparation and, therefore, the opinions and mindsets of teachers. In reality, although NTU would be funded by the federal government, the university’s curriculum would be left largely to the discretion of the professional educators, scholars, and researchers who work there, and the curriculum would reflect the most up-to-date and evidence-backed knowledge on effective methods of teacher education. In addition, criticism would be sure to arise from AC and deregulation proponents. Overall, there would evidently be myriad practical, legal, political, and bureaucratic challenges related to the establishment of NTU. But we believe that the benefits to the quality of our nation’s teachers and our education system as a whole make the task worthwhile.


Though NTU would not be a panacea for the myriad issues currently confronting teacher preparation and our education system more broadly, it represents an important shift in federal policy that would signal to the nation a new era has begun for teacher training and the profession as a whole. Beyond its symbolic importance, NTU would help to address issues of equity and access, of professional respect for teachers, and of variation in teacher training and accreditation. It is inexcusable that we know how to train effective teachers, and yet ineffective AC programs are still so prevalent, diluting the quality of teachers in the profession and perpetuating the myth that teaching is a skill that is innate or acquired only through trial and error. Our proposal offers a way to combat these troubling developments, helping to usher in a new norm for teacher training that resembles successful international models.

Every child deserves a teacher well versed in the art of teaching; who is professional and prepared; who understands the nuances of pedagogy and developmental psychology; who is resourceful and knowledgeable in a content area; and who has real teaching experience under a master teacher. These are not elusive qualities vested only in an elite few with some kind of teaching je ne sais quoi. Rather, these skills are honed through years of education and practice. And when they become fully developed, they can equip any teacher with the ability to provide a transformative educational experience.


This work would not have been possible without the thoughtful comments of Ben Wong and George Hyunh. We would also like to thank Dr. Mira Debs for her consultation and advice on the project. Their help has been integral to our work, and our project is stronger because of them.

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K12 Inc.: Virtually Failing our Students

K12 Inc.: Virtually Failing our Students

Sydney Babiak, Emily Patton, Jaclyn Price, and Billy Roberts


K12 Inc. is a for-profit, online education company that provides online lessons, interactive activities, and virtual classrooms for full-time students. Technically, this qualifies K12 as an Educational Management Organization (EMO) as opposed to a Charter Management Organization (CMO), which is typically nonprofit and limited to managing services, not providing them. The organization boasts of its adaptability compared to both traditional and alternative charter schools, highlighting the advantages of online education in time flexibility, socialization, curriculum, and individual learning (K12 Inc. 2017). Parent testimonials on the CMO’s website praise a challenging curriculum, with extensive student and parent support, so that even outside a traditional classroom setting, students still receive a superior education (Ibid.). As of 2011, K12 offered 49 online academies in 23 states for a total of 65,396 students (Miron et al. 2012). Critics remark that K12’s unique structure develops student responsibility through autonomy in control of schedule and pace (Ash 2012).

However, student achievement data places K12-managed charters decidedly below their district counterparts. In its position as a for-profit company, K12 pulls public dollars from local, state, and federal governments while often failing to produce results. K12 has been the recipient of public ire and various lawsuits claiming that the company has mismanaged resources and failed to put student achievement ahead of its profits. Despite attractive media and positive testimonials on official school websites, the true nature of K12’s charter schools is exposed in the numbers, which act as a Mr. Hyde to the public Dr. Jekyll that the company likes to flaunt. K12 is sucking up public dollars at a time when policymakers are itching to implement technological solutions to the nation’s issues. In this case, though, it remains doubtful that traditional schooling will ever be supplanted by online education – at least not as long as it looks like K12.

To examine this proposition, our paper evaluates data from six randomly selected K12 schools. We used ELSI, an online tool for searching through federal education statistics, to examine school demographic data recorded by the Department of Education (DOE). We also used demographic data that was recorded as part of the DOE’s Civil Rights Data Collection program. For school performance data, we looked at the school and district performance reports issued by individual states. Each of the online charters we examined was contained within a particular school district, and so all district-level comparisons are with the respective K12 school’s assigned district.

History, Pedagogy and Mission

K12 Inc. was founded in 2000 by Ronald J. Packard, a former banker and McKinsey & Co. consultant (Randall 2008). The company first took off due to $40 million in venture capital from some of Packard’s wealthy cohorts (Ibid.), and according to the chairman of K12 Inc. (and former U.S. Secretary of Education) William Bennett, the organization’s initial audience was the nation’s 1.5-2 million homeschooled children (Starr 2001). At the time of K12’s inception, many in education were exploring different options in school choice, and some believed that online learning combined corporate efficiencies with the Internet in a revolution of public education, offering high quality at lower costs (Saul 2011).

K12’s mission is to provide a superior education for individual children; the company’s website reads, “Whether your student is curious, inventive, political, analytical– or anything in between– the K12 program makes the most of each child’s unique brilliance” (K12 Inc. 2017). These schools are run in an astounding variety of ways, both in terms of management structure and curricular focus (K12 Inc. 2017). The K12 curriculum includes mostly traditional material in math, language arts, science, and social studies, and is supplemented by a Learning Coach that works with students a certain number of hours depending on their grade level (with more coaching for younger students) (Ibid.).


The demographic data of K12’s schools vary by state and district; however, among the six districts we examined, we were able to identify several consistent trends. Overall, our analysis indicates that K12 schools do not enroll the same demographics as other schools in their district. The students they cater to are wealthier, less diverse, and more likely to speak English than their district school peers. To their credit, K12 schools do generally exceed district schools along one demographic measure: special education; though this is likely explained by the difficulty many students face in the public school system while fighting for special education accommodations. Looking for an option that would allow them the flexibility and personal attention they need, special education students likely turn to the online charters as an educational refuge.

In the realm of English language learners, K12 schools consistently under-enroll. The only significant exception is Colorado Virtual Academy, and their edge over the district schools is marginal. According to a K12 representative with whom we spoke, K12 does not offer instruction in languages other than English, and Colorado Virtual Academy does not appear to be an exception according to their website. The only explanation we can think of to explain the difference is that the Colorado program offers only grades 9-12, meaning students would have likely had significant time in traditional schools to learn the necessary amount of English. The K12 schools in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and California all enroll a significantly smaller percentage of ELL students than do their districts, likely because of the exclusively English course offerings.

The most striking data are probably the percentages of students of color that enroll in K12 schools. In every instance except in Wisconsin and Oregon, where the white populations are a supermajority in both district and K12 schools, students of color make up a significantly smaller portion of the student body than white students.

Free and reduced lunch enrollment is a bit more variable than the other demographic measures, though it still points to a more general trend wherein non-FRL students make up a greater portion of K12 schools than district schools. The outliers are Wisconsin, where the enrollments are roughly equal in proportion, and Pennsylvania, where the virtual charter enrolls a significantly greater percentage of FRL students than the district. No data was available for Oregon.

Data sources: SPED (Civil Rights Data Collection, 2013), ELL (Ibid), Race (ELSI, 2014-15), FRL (Ibid).

Student Performance

When it comes to student performance, the data is even more explicit in condemning K12 schools; at least in terms of the six schools that we analyzed. With no exceptions, students enrolled in K12 schools performed worse in math than their district and state counterparts. With only one exception, they performed worse in English and language arts (ELA) (though even with the one exception, Michigan Virtual Charter School, it only performed better than the district, not the state – and marginally so). Data was not available for the Upper Merion Area School District in Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin’s statewide data only had two categories: proficient and not proficient.

These data seem to make an incredibly strong case against K12’s for-profit, online charters as a way of properly educating students. It is difficult to conclude for certain, though, that the data represent some failure on the part of the schools. The poor performance could be attributable to selection bias, or the schools’ higher enrollment of special education students, or some other extraneous variable. Still, the results do not bode well for K12, and it would be wise for parents and policymakers to be wary of these schools and their analogs, unless they can somehow turn their currently abysmal performances around.


Data sources: California (California Department of Education, 2016), Oregon (Oregon Department of Education, 2015-16), Wisconsin (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2015-16), Colorado (Colorado Department of Education, 2013-14), Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2016), Michigan (Michigan Department of Education, 2015-16).

Marketing and Media

K12 Inc makes bold claims of high parent satisfaction numbers, student success, and flexibility of curriculum (K12 Inc., 2017). However, according to parents, students, and teachers of K12 schools, these claims are flat-out false.

In “The Dirty Dozen,” Welner (2013) identifies several shady tactics through which charter schools endeavor to selectively recruit students. Evidence of these tactics can be found in the following aspects of K12 academy’s marketing materials:

  • Descriptors of its flexibility in location: branding its services to “athletes, musicians, performers, military families, and those with physical restrictions.” (K12 Inc., 2017) This works to attract highly mobile students who often perform worse than their stable peers. (Sparks, 2017).
  • Marketing targeted toward “advanced learners,” outlining their “college prep” services. This may work to recruit high performing students. (K12 Inc., 2017)
  • Marketing that involves images of parents assisting the student with their work, even branding parents as “Learning Coaches.”  
    • In K12’s promotional “A Day in the Life” profiles, all students are pictured as receiving help throughout the day from their parents. This will exclude those students whose parents are unable to stay home due to employment. (K12 Inc., 2017).
  • A lack of both curriculum in other languages and teachers able to teach in other languages. This creates barriers to potential English Language Learners’ enrollment in K12 schools (K12 Inc., 2017).

These marketing techniques not only discourage (and in some cases, preclude) some students from even applying; they also paint a dishonest picture of K12 academy schools as flexible, successful alternative choices to district schools, despite the troves of evidence to the contrary. These false marketing claims have brought about media scrutiny, but also lawsuits for K12 Inc (Saul, 2011).

In a 2011 New York Times profile of K12, the company was criticized as compromising the educational outcomes of students to increase profits, engaging in practices such as:

  • Reporting enrollment numbers for students who had never logged in, thereby receiving state funds for students they weren’t teaching. State auditors in Colorado found that the K12-run Colorado Virtual Academy counted 120 students toward state reimbursement even though enrollment could not be verified and a number of students had never even logged on.  
  • Overworking teachers by increasing the number of students they were required to manage. One teacher from Pennsylvania said her number of students was more like 70-100, not the 1:49 student teacher ratio that K12 reported.
  • Lying to shareholders, parents, students and teachers about student performance data.
  • Pressuring teachers to pass students who were failing for the sake of enrollment numbers (Saul, 2011).

Additionally, while K12’s site boasts its ability to prepare students for college, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) decided in 2014 that it would not accept coursework from 24 virtual charters that use curriculum provided by K12 Inc (Raden, 2014).  

The disparity between what K12 advertises and the actual lived experiences of its students, parents, and teachers has led to several lawsuits and the disappointment of a fair share of the company’s 65,000 students across the nation.


The channels through which K12 receives funding are as varied and complex as the spectrum of services it offers. With its private shareholders and largely public clients, the company to some extent beholden to what some view as conflicting mandates: the mandate to maximize profits and the mandate to maximize student achievement. This has been a talking point for K12’s skeptics, who have been particularly, who are particularly critical of the way the company handles its public funding.

In the public sector, K12 contracts out its management and educational services to independent charter schools, districts, and states. In return for these services, K12 receives the funding each of its pupils would have received from state and local governments, an average of $5,500 to $6,000 per student in addition to a share of any federal funding districts are receiving. This gives K12 Inc. tremendous control over almost every aspect of their schools including curriculum, hiring of teachers and principals, and evaluating student performance.

In addition to receiving public money through its contracts with public district and charter schools, K12 also raises revenue by selling private online courses directly to families who cannot access any of its tuition-free online public schools. The company receives additional money from corporate investors. Its stocks are publicly traded, a fact that is clearly advertised by the thorough “investors” section on the company’s website (K12 Inc, 2017).

In the years since its founding, K12 has been criticized for abusing its access to public funding by gaming the system in order to receive more money than it is entitled to. One way it has done this is to establish schools in poor districts, which may receive more funding than rich ones in some states. In 2009, K12 established a partnership with the traditional schools of Carroll County, Virginia. Though it enrolled students from across the commonwealth, all children who enrolled in the Virginia Virtual Academy were counted as Carroll County students regardless of where they lived. Because Carroll county was a poor district, K12 was able to receive extra money from the state for students who were technically coming from richer, neighboring districts (Brown and Layton, 2011).

Given founder Packard’s history in banking and consulting, it may come as no surprise that K12 has strong ties to the corporate world. The lineup of investors who helped provide him the $40 million in venture capital that he needed to start the company includes Andrew Tisch of the Loews billionaire family and Larry Ellison of Oracle and Knowledge Universe, a for-profit education conglomerate chaired by Michael Milken (Randall, 2008). The majority of the company’s executives come from for-profit education companies and other corners of the corporate world (Vogel, 2016). The head of K12’s “curriculum and products organization” previously spearheaded product development at Pearson Publishing (ibid.). Today, 87% of the company’s shares are held by institutional and mutual fund owners (Yahoo Finance, n.d.). Its top institutional investors are Technology Crossover Management VII, Ltd. and The Vanguard Group (ibid.). These connections strengthen the company’s incentive to operate with profit–rather than educational quality–as its primary motivator.

Because it receives so much public funding, K12 has also been criticized heavily for the amount of money it has channeled into non-educational ventures, particularly lobbying and advertising (Vogel, 2016). K12 has openly associated itself with the corporate-driven bill mill American Legislative Education Council (ALEC), and has contributed money to the Foundation for Excellence in Education think tank. Both of these organizations have advocated for policies that would encourage greater demand for digital learning tools like the ones produced by K12 (ibid.). To some, these activities suggest that the company has a greater interest in raising revenues and appealing to investors than it does providing quality education services for its students.

Accountability and Oversight

K12 Inc. is held accountable for its spending by both its private investors and its public clients, both of which have voiced strong objections to the company’s lack of transparency about spending.

On multiple occasions, K12’s lack of transparency regarding the way it spends student money has led charters to pull out of their contracts.

  • In 2013, K12 Inc. lost a management contract with Colorado Virtual Academies—the state’s largest online charter—after complaints from parents and the school that K12 was mismanaging resources (Hood, 2013).
  • In 2014, Agora Cyber Charter School in Pennsylvania, a school that accounts for 14% of the company’s $848.2 million in annual revenue decided to not to renew its management contract with K12 (Raden, 2014).
  • In 2016, K12 Inc. had to pay a $160 million to 14 of its group of schools in California known as California Virtual Academies and $8.5 million to the state of California to resolve claims that the company violated California false claims, false advertising, and unfair competition laws (Kieler, 2016).

(Raden, 2014)

K12 Inc. has also faced the ire of its shareholders. In 2012, a shareholder filed a lawsuit against the company alleging that the firm violated securities law by making false statements to investors about students’ poor performance on standardized tests. This class-action suit came after chief executive Ronald J. Packard said that scores from Pennsylvania’s Agora Charter School were “significantly higher than a typical school on state administered tests for growth,” when, weeks earlier, a study found that only 42 percent of Agora students tested on grade level or better in math, compared with 75 percent of students statewide. And only 52 percent of Agora students had hit the mark in reading, compared with 72 percent statewide (Brown, 2012).

In 2011, only a third of K12-managed schools reached adequate yearly progress as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Program. Yet, K12 remains the largest purveyor of online schooling in the nation.


The K12 website has little to say about the qualifications of its teachers, aside from its claim that “the majority have advanced degrees coupled with years of teaching experience (K12 Inc, 2017).” In its page on career opportunities, the company makes no specifications for the kind of candidates they are looking to hire, except to say that they are seeking “employees with creative ideas who are as committed to making a difference in education as we are (ibid).”

One qualification that all K12 teachers must share, according to the company’s website, is a thorough training in online instruction methods. At least some of this training appears to be led by the company itself, which claims to have trained “more than 5,000 teachers (K12 Inc, 2017).” In addition to this training, the website adds, “teachers go through ongoing professional development so they stay current with future advancements in online instruction (ibid).” The nature of this training is unspecified.

Because a typical online class is larger than a typical class in a brick-and-mortar school, most online teachers begin with a larger group of students than an average public school student would (Brown and Layton, 2011). This has been found to be the case for K12 teachers, some of whom have said they were managing as many as 270 students, even though they had been told they would have 150 (Saul, 2011). This is not addressed on the website, which makes no mention of either teacher sustainability or teacher diversity.

In addition to its teachers, the K12 curriculum relies heavily on the participation and cooperation of learning coaches: “usually a student’s parent or another responsible adult,” according to the website (K12, 2017). The learning coach is responsible for “ensuring their student is on track with assignments and coursework as well as communicating with their teachers throughout the school year (ibid.).”

Though learning coaches do not receive any formal training from K12, they are provided with lesson guides, tools, videos and resources to talk to other parents of other current students (ibid.). According to the K12 website, the time commitment of the learning coach is expected to decrease as grade levels increase. Notably, in what is perhaps its only indirect nod to the possibility of ELL learners, the website also points out that “learning coaches are not required to be fluent in English (ibid.).”

Relationship to district

As the complicated nature of its funding would suggest, the relationship between K12 schools and their surrounding districts has the potential to be highly fraught, particularly when they are competing with district schools for public funding. In in 2008, Forbes reported that “when students abandon the blackboard for the flat screen, their schools lose up to 70% of the taxpayer money that attaches to them (Randall, 2008).” This can pose a significant problem for district schools, especially when the state counts all enrolled students as residents of the district where the charter school is established, as they did in Carrol County.

Other impacts of K12 schools may be slightly more obscure, given the myriad of ways in which their services can be implemented. K12 schools are either categorized as a Virtual Academy, which uses traditional K12 curriculum; an Insight School, which specializes in helping students overcome certain learning challenges; a blended school that combines classroom attendance with online learning; a Destination Careers Academy, which emphasizes college and career preparation; and finally, a District-Run School, where traditional public schools incorporate K12 curriculum in their classrooms using available technology (K12, 2017). The sheer variety of these options makes it difficult to distinguish or even speculate on the overall effect that a K12 school might have on the environment in which it is situated.


While K12 Inc. may have started out as an effort to bring public education into the 21st century with corporate efficiency and online curriculum, giving students across the nation the chance to learn what they might in a brick-and-mortar public school from home, it has since failed to produce satisfactory results. In fact, every virtual charter in the districts studied performed worse than their respective district schools.

Policymakers should be mindful of K12 Inc.’s abysmal track record of failing its students, recruiting only a narrow selection of students while accepting government dollars, lying to shareholders, and serving monetary interests before students. K12 has done everything within its power to increase profits while mismanaging public education resources taken away from district schools.


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