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K12 online computer-based curriculum

Publisher: K12, Inc.
Review last updated: course prices updated 2009
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K12 is one of the most ambitious attempts to harness computers and the internet for homeschooling. Combining traditional texts, real books, and offline activities with computer-based instruction, activities, and assessment, K12's approach to education has tremendous promise. However, K12 simultaneously does some things very well and some things about which I am very unhappy. But let's start with the positives.

K12 strives for solid and challenging academic instruction, using innovative delivery tools. The curriculum has been created by teams of teachers and educational leaders, with additional input from parents. Curriculum design is heavily influenced by ideas from Core Knowledge, the foundation established in implement the ideas of E.D. Hirsch, author of many books related to "cultural literacy" and education. This means there's a strong emphasis on what most would consider a traditional approach to phonics/reading and math skills, plus cultural literacy, history, geography, and the arts.

The curriculum also recognizes the value of offering activities that accommodate children's learning styles. Consequently, about 25% of the work is done online, while the rest involves workbooks, worksheets, projects, drawing, listening to music, singing, working with phonic tiles, finding locations on globes and maps, reading real books, and doing experiments. Some books and learning materials are provided with the courses; some worksheets and activity instructions are downloaded on your computer (as PDF files); and a few books will be found at local bookstores or libraries--these are popular books for reading such as The Velveteen Rabbit. While many required resources are included (e.g., CDs, small whiteboards, math manipulatives), you will need to provide some basics like construction paper and chalk. I was only able to preview courses for the youngest grade levels, but from what K12 says, it looks like instruction shifts toward more computer-based learning and less hands-on activity for upper grades.

Another plus is flexibility to enroll children in single courses, complete grade level programs, or a mixture of courses from different grade levels. For example, you might enroll a child in first grade history and science plus second grade math and language arts. Online placement tests for math and language arts help you determine which grade level is best in those subjects. Students can complete courses as quickly as they are able or take up to two years as long as you select independent study courses. (Teacher supported courses cost $450 for K-8 and $750 for 9-12 per course.) As you would expect, enrolling in single courses is more costly, with costs running from about $188 for 6 courses to $264 per year for a single course (on a monthly payment plan) for the first student, with discounts for sibling enrollment. On the other hand, K12 allows students to go as quickly or slowly as they need, so you can save money if students complete courses quickly. If you think your child might complete a course quickly, you can enroll in the course month by month for about $30 amonth. You can also use this option too extend a course beyond the initial year.

Enrolled students can use either Windows-based systems or Macs, but they must have easy access to the internet. Slow, dial-up hookups will be a bother since much work is done by accessing lessons on the K12 site, and there are numerous additional downloads that are essential. It worked fine over my cable connection, but I found that I resented having to go through the download process to get a single phonics worksheet. You will also need decent speakers for your computer to receive much of the oral instruction/explanation.

The computer includes lesson planning and tracking features for parents. Parents can select a predetermined school calendar or make up their own. They accept the default daily class scheduling or set their own. Each week, parents can easily access a list of required resources and preparation activities. Such features make life easier for busy homeschooling parents.

There are a few "mechanical" annoyances with the program. The print on many screens is very small and might be difficult for some to read. (This is text parents would need to read, not children.) Another problem results from the sophistication and multiplicity of features: where to go next and how to get there can sometimes be confusing. Most parents should be able to figure it out without much difficulty, but it isn't always obvious.

Now, I need to address where I think K12 has gone wrong. If K12 were only being marketed to non-Christian parents of children attending government schools, I would see K12 as a real improvement over what many of their children now receive. It is stronger on academics, tries to include character education, spends less time on social engineering, adapts somewhat to learning styles, and involves parents directly in their children's learning process. While those children might be better off, they are still not getting a Christian education and they are not getting the sort of truly creative, individualized education many homeschoolers provide.

Unfortunately, K12 has chosen to create a curriculum that can be marketed to government schools or packaged within charter schools. That means, the curriculum is designed to meet (or exceed) the standards or frameworks for government schools. See my article "The Education Standards Movement Spells Trouble for Private and Home Schools" to understand what is wrong with schools trying to align their curriculum with the standards and frameworks. Part of the problem is the worldview issue. Christianity might make an appearance for historical or literary purposes, but God is excluded from all the "important" academic subjects. Since Deuteronomy 6 makes it clear that we are supposed to talk about the things of God all the time--when we lie down, when we rise up, when we walk by the way, and when we sit in our houses--excluding God from the basic curriculum is a denial of God's Word and His command to us. If we do this we are, in essence, denying that God is important enough to have a place in discussions of language arts, history, music, etc.

If you think K12 is a conservative Christian curriculum, in my opinion, that's a false impression. Using former Education Secretary William Bennett, a professing Christian, as the most visible spokesperson for the program, K12 has targeted homeschoolers as a primary market, recognizing that a majority of them are conservative Christian families. K12 has stressed its use of classic books, which has led some to think of it as a "classical curriculum." Additionally, K12 stresses character building, an appealing theme of some of Mr. Bennett's books. All of this creates an aura that appeals to Christian families even though the curriculum itself is designed so that it contains no Christian content that would prevent its use in government-funded schools.

Having said this, I have heard from many Christian parents who are using the program at their own expense. Many are quite happy with the design and function of the program. Since they purchase the program as a curriculum and are not under the direction of a public school teacher, they are free to supplement or substitute with Christian teaching. (I have to wonder how effectively this can be done.) Nevertheless, it is working well for many families.

[Note: If you've read thus far, you've got the essence of my review. The rest goes into the background of the program, virtual charter schools, the standards movement, and resultant problems. If you are considering enrollment in a charter or virtual school under government control, you really should read the rest of this article. If you are thinking of using the curriculum in your own private school AND you're not interested in the ideological/political aspects of K12, skip the rest of this review.]

K12, Inc. was formed with an initial $10 million investment. To recoup that investment, K12, Inc. seems to have pinned its financial hopes on tapping into government funding through charter schools and vouchers. (Goldsborough, Margaret W., "A New Enterprise Joins Growing Community of Online Schools," New York Times on the Web, January 24, 2001 <http://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/24/technology/24EDUCATION.html>). It's much easier to sell families on K12 if the state pays all the cost and families pay nothing. So K12 has already begun to tap into the charter school funding stream with contracts in Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, and Alaska. Charter schools offering K12 curriculum typically offer additional teacher supervision and computer equipment. However, the cost to the state is about five times higher (around $5000) than the cost for a parent enrolling a child outside a charter school. Obviously, there's much more money to be made by marketing through charter schools rather than directly to individual homeschooling families. 

I am convinced that virtual charter schools (i.e., charter schools without a campus that enroll home educating students) pose the most significant danger to future freedom for home educators. Such schools attract a high proportion of children who would otherwise be enrolled in a traditional private school or private homeschool. By aligning their curriculum and goals with those of the state, these schools support the movement toward a national curriculum and national testing that has the potential to undermine the freedom of families wishing to provide their children with a truly Christian education or any other form of education that would conflict with the government-approved educational agenda. Families who enroll in such programs tend to focus on the "free" services and resources rather than upon what they have sacrificed in exchange. As virtual charter schools enroll more and more families who have abdicated their responsibility to provide a Christian education (and the same can be said for families of other religious persuasions), they weaken the numbers and strength of those who would resist the control of government imposed curriculum and testing.

As mentioned previously, K12 is entirely supportive of the standards/testing movement. A Business Week article relates that Mr. Bennett "believes the Bush Administration's focus on annual testing and accountability can only benefit his online enterprise. ‘That's because, at the end of the day, people will say, "O.K., we're for standards, we're for outcomes,"' Bennett predicts. ‘And then they will ask: "Now how do we get there?"' Bennett, of course, hopes K12 will be part of the answer." (Starr, Alexandra, "Bill Bennett: The Education of an E-School Skeptic," Business Week, February 14, 2001.)

If you think the national standards and testing agenda a good idea, then you might want to enroll your children in K12. If not, you will do yourself and the private home education world a favor by avoiding K12 and similar programs offered through government funded schools.

Pricing

See review

Instant Key

  • Learning Styles: all
    Suitable for: 
    one-on-one or group plus independent work
    Need for parent/teacher instruction: 
    moderate
    Prep time needed:
    minimal to moderate
    Educational Approach: combination of computer-based, real book, and Core Knowledge
    Religious perspective:
    secular

Publisher's Info

  • K12, Inc.

    8000 Westpark Dr.
    Suite 500
    McLean, VA 22102
    888-YOUR K12 (968-7512)
    www.k12.com