A company that runs one of the nation’s largest networks of online schools recently decided to discontinue a program that arranged for high school teachers in the United States to send their students’ English essays to India for evaluations by reviewers there.
The existence of the program by Herndon,Va.-based K12 Inc. is an example of the opportunities and hazards for education companies interested in tapping the expertise available in other countries. K12 faced criticism from people in Arizona about the outsourcing program after a blogger revealed some details about it.
David A. Safier, a retired English teacher in Tucson, Ariz., criticized the use of India-based reviewers on the Blog for Arizona, where he is a regular contributor. Writing about the Arizona Virtual Academy, a state-funded public charter school that uses K12’s management and curriculum services, Mr. Safier said the essay-review program raised concerns about educational quality, the use of taxpayer money, and even student safety and privacy. He claims that the Arizona Virtual Academy’s parents may not have been fully informed or consulted about the program.
Jeffrey Kwitowski, a spokesman for K12, said last week that the company disputes many of Mr. Safier’s claims, but said K12 was investigating whether student privacy was violated.
K12 ended the essay-review program before the current school year, Mr. Kwitowski said. He said the program was a pilot, begun in 2006-07 at only a couple of the 23 virtual academies, including Arizona’s, that are its partners and expanded in the last school year to the eight virtual academies that offer high school. The eight schools enroll about 4,700 students.
Another program criticized by Mr. Safier, which matched up middle school students with India-based mathematics tutors, was an even more limited trial than the essay-review program, according to Mr. Kwitowski. It also has been discontinued, he said.
K12 contracted with two companies to provide the essay-review services. The first was Socratic Learning Inc., based in Plano, Texas, which assigned the work to an India-based subsidiary, Tutors Worldwide. K12 later replaced Socratic Learning with TutorVista, based in Bangalore, India, to provide the service. According to its Web site, TutorVista provides fee-based tutoring to more than 10,000 students in the United States.
The Evaluation Process
The essay-evaluation process with both India-based operations was similar and was overseen by the online schools’ teachers, Mr. Kwitowski said.
Students handed in various drafts of essays electronically to their teachers through a secure computer server, he said. The teachers reviewed the essays and decided whether to give students their own initial feedback or to use the essay service.
A teacher using the service would remove sensitive personal information, then using a separate server, would “send it to a reviewer who would provide initial feedback, which [the teacher] would receive and use at their discretion, or discard,” Mr. Kwitowski said.
Mr. Safier, who began writing on the blog last February, said he has reviewed essay-tracking logs and other documents from the process. He said the reviewers’ comments were often passed on to students.
Some parents complained to the Arizona Virtual Academy after seeing reviewers’ comments that had unusual wording that suggested they might not have learned to speak English in the United States, he added.
Mr. Kwitowski said the India-based reviewers were qualified for their work. “We made sure they were qualified to do jobs we had asked them to do,” he said. “All had degrees in English; many had even higher education degrees, too.”
The essay-review program aimed to save teachers time so they could offer students other activities, such as online writing workshops, and reduce the delay between students’ submissions of essay drafts and their receipt of feedback, Mr. Kwitowski said. He flatly rejected another of Mr. Safier’s assertions, that the use of the reviewers was a cost-cutting measure.
“That is absolutely incorrect—it was an additional cost on K12,” Mr. Kwitowski said.
He said the company tries out many pilot programs in any given year, and expands or discards them after a review of their effectiveness and with feedback from teachers. He said the outsourcing of essay evaluations was discontinued for “various reasons” but would not elaborate.
K12 was founded in 1999 by current Chief Executive Officer Ronald J. Packard and former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who has since left the company. K12 went public last December. It enrolls more than 40,000 students in 23 states.
One of Mr. Safier’s most serious charges is that the company or the Arizona Virtual Academy released confidential information about students when it transferred their essays to reviewers in India. He said he bases that charge on documents he obtained from India. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act and other state and federal laws hold schools to a high legal standard on safeguarding student information.
“K12 takes this very seriously, which is why K12 is conducting an investigation to find out what [Mr. Safier’s] information is,” Mr. Kwitowski said.
For now, “we don’t know the source,” he said last week. “We have reason to believe that may have come from one of these previous vendors,” he said. “Right now, we are investigating. We believe the information [released] is very limited.”
He added that in all of K12’s contracts, “particularly these two pilot programs,” outside vendors are bound by confidentiality and nondisclosure provisions that would be violated by unauthorized release of students’ personal information.
The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the state agency in Phoenix that authorized the Arizona Virtual Academy, is looking into the alleged release of student information, Deanna Rowe, the executive director, said. State law allows virtual charter schools, like any other school, to contract for services overseas, she said.
K12’s recent experiment with outsourcing to India is not the only example of an education company using the expertise of people in other countries.
At least one other company has enlisted personnel based overseas for educational support. Smarthinking Inc., which helps colleges, universities, and some K-12 schools connect students with tutoring services in a variety of academic subjects through the Internet, employs tutors living in Canada, Chile, India, the Philippines, and South Africa, according to Burck Smith, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the Washington-based company.
About 30 percent of the company’s roughly 800 tutors are located overseas, he said, which in part helps the company provide academic support for students at any time of day.
“We maintain a service level that has really never been present in education before, because we can use the Internet to aggregate the demand for instruction across multiple schools and the supply of instructors across the globe,” Mr. Smith said.
Regardless of where the tutors are located, they all receive the same level of training and meet the same qualifications to ensure quality control, he said. Students’ personal information is kept confidential, and all interactions between students and tutors are archived on the Web site, which can then be reviewed by the school or the company, he said.
And Mr. Smith expects more schools to enlist help from abroad in the future.
But some virtual schools have decided to keep student work exclusively in-house, such as the Baltimore-based Connections Academy llc, which runs virtual schools under contracts with charter schools and school districts in 14 states.
“Any instruction, evaluation, assessment, grading of assignments, and sharing of information about students does not go out of the school,” said Susan Francher, the vice president of marketing for the company, who does not expect it to move in that direction. “It’s not really in the way that we have set up our schools to run.”
Reporter-Researcher Katie Ash contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as K12 Inc. Scraps India Outsourcing