For-profit companies, including Elevate K12 and Proximity Learning, offer districts the opportunity to fill hard-to-staff positions in everything from 6th grade reading to AP Physics, using virtual teachers who may be working in a completely different area of the country. The option is becoming increasingly popular.
Is this a clever solution to teacher shortages, or another instance of shortchanging the neediest kids? It depends on who you ask.
Here are some pros and cons, according to the companies and their critics.
Reasons why hiring a virtual teacher may be a plus
Addresses the teacher shortage. Schools get a qualified, certified teacher in the classroom. That is not as good as “an awesome in-person teacher,” said Shaily Baranwal, Elevate K12’s founder and CEO, but it’s a big step up from a long-term substitute who might not be qualified to teach a particular class.
Provides a broader range of offerings. Schools can offer courses that they might not be able to otherwise, such as Mandarin Chinese or coding. Joseph Liang, a former Chicago public school teacher who now works for Proximity Education, recalls teaching Chinese virtually to four kids in rural Michigan, all of whom ultimately excelled in the language. “I don’t think they would have ever been able to find a Mandarin teacher there,” he said.
Flexibility for teachers. Teachers get to work from anywhere—ideal for military spouses and others who move around frequently. They can set their own schedule. They don’t have to deal with things like bus duty or staffing the cafeteria, or even having class interrupted so that a student can go see a nurse. They can just focus on teaching. Teaching for Proximity has been, a “dream come true,” Liang said.
Some of the potential downsides
Equity concerns. Exclusively virtual education may work for a small subset of kids, but the vast majority of students learn much better with some in-person instruction, many experts argue. The companies seem most likely to fill shortages in urban and rural schools serving a high proportion of kids in poverty who are often already academically behind their peers. “I actually find it disturbing that a company is peddling this as a legitimate answer to a serious problem and that anyone who cares about their schools would see it as something that they could benefit from,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Lower pay. Teachers working for these companies tend to earn less than they would in a traditional job. Elevate K12’s pay ranges from roughly $20 to $50 an hour, depending, in part, on the subject being taught. Proximity currently offers $25 to $30 an hour for part-time teachers. The company recently created full-time positions paying $40,000 annually. That’s a lot less than the estimated average yearly teacher salary of $65,090 during the 2020-21 school year. The companies could ultimate depress pay for in-person teachers, said Samuel Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Not necessarily cost effective for districts. Although the company’s teacher is providing instruction, school districts still must hire an adult to stay with students in the classroom, often a teaching assistant or paraprofessional. Ensuring that there’s a school district person on-site might add to the cost of working with these companies. The arrangement may not be the best use of a district’s scarce resources, said Evan Stone, the co-founder and CEO of Educators For Excellence, which seeks to elevate teachers’ voices in K-12 policymaking, because the virtual teacher “is getting less money, and there’s a profit margin being carved off.”