Clever solution or big mistake?

“A simple solution to equity problems caused by the teacher shortage crisis.”

“Make quality education available to all students, regardless of where they live, thereby ensuring educational equity.”

These are pitches Proximity Learning and Elevate K12, fast-growing, for-profit companies that livestream teachers into classrooms nationwide, performing in districts that are struggling to find an algebra or physics teacher.

The companies’ approach to virtual learning, they say, offers more than just helping districts fill vacancies and allowing teachers to set their own hours and work from anywhere: it offers a glimpse into the future of K -12 education.

Staff shortages and a desire to prepare children for in-demand jobs will eventually prompt many schools to offer a combination of face-to-face teaching and this new live-streaming model, said Shaily Baranwal, founder and CEO of Elevate K12.

“I absolutely believe that will come,” said Baranwal. In some places “it’s already happening”.

Although having a personal educator is preferable, there are some communities that are likely always struggling with staffing, and without companies like hers, their students will be missing out on opportunities, she said.

However, critics question the true value of such virtual courses.

The companies may have “good marketing,” but they’re not necessarily good for students, said Samuel Abrams, a former teacher who is now director of the National Center for Studies in the Privatization of Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
In fact, he sees the mere existence of these companies as “a symptom… of a sick school system” that refuses to pay teachers fairly or improve their working conditions.

Is a distance teacher better than no teacher at all?

Both companies have grown exponentially since the pandemic began, meaning more and more students are likely to be being taught by a teacher who isn’t in their school building and may not even be in their time zone.

At the end of the 2020-21 school year, 295 teachers were working for Proximity, which is used by 164 districts
schools across the country. This school year, that number has almost tripled to 868. And the company has forecast that the number of teachers will nearly double again next school year, to about 1,500, including a mix of full-time and part-time teachers.

Elevate K12 currently serves about 250 districts but expects that number to double to 500 next school year. The company had over 1,300 teachers this year and is likely to have more than 3,000 next year, Baranwal said. His teachers work part-time.

I find it actually disturbing that a company is touting this as a legitimate answer to a serious problem and that everyone who cares about their schools should see it as something they could benefit from.

Susan Moore Johnson, Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Both companies say equity is part of their mission. But Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, is skeptical.

These services are most likely “required by districts that either cannot pay teachers adequately, or choose not to,” she said. Such schools are “often located in communities that serve children who have been underserved for years.”

For most kids, virtual classes weren’t very effective, Moore Johnson said. And when teachers live several states away, they can’t coordinate with their peers or personally connect with parents or be part of the community. “I find it very suspicious that this is being advertised as creating more educational equity,” she said.

“I find it actually disturbing that a company is offering this as a legitimate answer to a serious problem and that everyone who cares about their schools should see it as something they could benefit from,” said Moore Johnson.

Baranwal, who worked in early childhood education in her native India, agrees that “a great face-to-face teacher is best. But she said that’s no longer always available as fewer people enter the profession and even fewer work in specific geographic locations or teach specific subjects.

The pandemic, which has led to widespread adoption of virtual and hybrid learning, appears to have made it easier for K-12 leaders to embrace the big changes that companies like Proximity represent, said John Rollack, a former teacher and principal , who is now the senior leader of human resources in the company.

“Like that [the K-12 system is] Doing things is pretty dated, pretty antiquated,” he said. “Colleges have been offering online classes for 20 years. … And they did well. But for some reason, K-12 education says, “No, no, no, everyone has to be in a classroom.”

Other professionals are working from home, why shouldn’t teachers have that option?

The teacher shortage was a problem even before the pandemic. But it’s gotten worse in part because teachers say meeting the academic, social and emotional needs of children after the crisis has made an already difficult task even harder.

Teachers are resigning – or considering – in astounding numbers. Nearly half of district leaders and school principals described their staffing shortages as “severe” or “very severe” in a Fall 2021 EdWeek Research Center survey..

This will likely continue. Between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years, the number of people graduating from a teacher education program fell by nearly a third, according to a report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

College graduates considering future careers want the ability to set their own hours and work from anywhere, Barnawal said. “Other professionals have come along [flexibility] That lesson hasn’t arrived yet,” she said. “If you go to the pain points why they quit, it’s flexibility.”

But more flexibility can come with serious pay cuts.

Elevate K12 salary ranges from approximately $20 to $50 per hour, depending in part on the subject taught.

Proximity is currently offering $25-$30 per hour for part-time teachers. The company recently created full-time positions paying $40,000 annually. That’s much less than the estimated average annual teacher salary of $65,090 in the 2020-21 school year, and even lower than the average estimated salary in Mississippi — the state where teachers are paid the least — of $47,655, so the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But when teachers go to work for these virtual classroom services, a lot is being taken away from them: bus service, attending faculty meetings, attending prom, scheduling face-to-face meetings with parents, and making sure kids go to the nurse to get their meds done, Rollack said .

“The more you pile up on a teacher outside of their classroom, the more frustrated he or she gets, and they burn out and decide to leave,” Rollack said.

For Joseph Liang, a former Chicago public school teacher, leading Proximity’s Mandarin and science classes was “a dream come true.”

Working in a traditional environment, Liang didn’t have a classroom and had to haul a cart through a three-story building, which was physically demanding for him. And if a student raised their hand and asked to go to the nurse, it would interrupt the entire class.

He now feels more connected to his students. One even visited him when he was in the Windy City. Liang and his family invited him to dinner.

While most students won’t benefit as much from virtual classes as they do from in-person classes, it makes sense that teachers like Liang would enjoy taking on more focused assignments, said Evan Stone, co-founder and CEO of Educators For Excellence, which aims to improve the Raise teachers’ voices in K-12 politics.

School districts should take this as a sign that the profession requires a major rethink.

“I think that shows that we have a lot of work to do in the country to improve the teacher’s role, what it means to be a teacher,” he said. What makes jobs at these companies “attractive to educators is that they can control their time. And unfortunately, in most school buildings, educators currently lack the ability to plan their days and control their time, impacting their ability to serve their students.”

Some experts fear schools would start replacing regular teachers with virtual ones

Proximity and Elevate K12 teachers are non-union, although some work with state and county unions. And in many states, they are likely to be identified as temporary workers.

School districts provide an adult, often a teaching assistant or paraprofessional, to stay with the students in the classroom while the virtual teachers conduct classes and work with the students. For example, in schools using Proximity, this person who is physically in the classroom can manage the day-to-day running of the classroom, contact parents when needed, and help with grading. Ensuring that a district representative is on site can increase the cost of working with these companies.

The arrangement may not be the best use of a district’s scarce resources, Stone said, because the virtual teacher “gets less money and a profit margin is taken away.”

Additionally, companies like Proximity and Elevate K-12 could lower wages for conventional teachers, Abrams said.

He remains concerned about the quality of teaching. “You need a personal engagement with a teacher. We have known that since the days of Socrates,” he said.

Kids who want to learn Mandarin Chinese, for example, might be self-motivated enough to take advantage of the virtual classes offered by these companies, Abrams said.

But when a district opens the door to it, it’s “a slippery slope,” he warned. “Spanish might be next and then you don’t have language classes in the house, then the same thing with calculus and then, say, physics. Pretty soon you gutted your whole school. And I think it’s a dangerous path.”

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