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Clever solution or big mistake?

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

“To make high quality education accessible to all students, regardless of where they live, by bringing equality in education.”

These are the arguments of Proximity Learning and Elevate K12, fast-growing for-profit companies that broadcast live teachers to classrooms nationwide, in districts struggling to find an algebra teacher. or physics.

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

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

“I think one hundred percent that’s happening,” Baranwal said. In some places, “it’s already happening”.

While it’s better to have an in-person educator, some communities will likely still struggle to find staff, and without businesses like hers, their students will miss out on opportunities, she said.

But critics question the true value of these virtual teaching services.

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 the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

In fact, he sees the very 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 start of the pandemic, which means that more and more students are likely to be taught by a teacher who is not in their school building and might not even be. in their time zone.

At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, Proximity, which is used by 164 districts, had 295 teachers working for schools across the country. This school year, that number has almost tripled to 868. And the company has projected that next year its teaching staff will nearly double again, to about 1,500, including a mix of part-time teachers full and part time.

Elevate K12, meanwhile, currently works for about 250 districts, but expects that to double next school year to 500. The company had more than 1,300 teachers this year and will likely have more than 3. 000 next year, Baranwal said. Its teachers work part-time.

In fact, I find it disturbing that a company would peddle this as a legitimate response to a serious problem and that anyone who cares about their schools sees it as something they could benefit from.

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

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

These services are more likely to be “used by districts that cannot or choose not to pay teachers properly,” she said. These schools are “often in communities that have served underserved children for years.”

For most kids, virtual teaching hasn’t been very effective, Moore Johnson said. And if teachers live in multiple states, they aren’t able to coordinate with their colleagues or connect with parents in person, or be part of the community. “That it’s advertised as bringing greater educational equity seems very suspicious to me,” she said.

“I actually find it disturbing that a company would peddle this as a legitimate response to a serious problem and that anyone who cares about their schools sees it as something they could benefit from,” Moore Johnson said.

Baranwal, who worked in early childhood education in his native India, agrees that “a great teacher in a face-to-face classroom is the best. But she said that’s not always available anymore, as fewer people enter the profession and even fewer to work in certain geographies or teach certain subjects.

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

“The way that [the K-12 system is] doing things is quite dated, quite antiquated,” he said. “Colleges have been delivering courses online for 20 years. …and they did it well. But for some reason, in K-12 education, it’s “no, no, no, everyone has to be in a classroom.”

Other professionals are working from home, why wouldn’t teachers have this option?

The shortage of teachers was already a problem before the pandemic. But the situation has worsened, in part because teachers say meeting the academic, social and emotional needs of children in the wake of the crisis has made an already difficult job even harder.

Teachers are dropping out — or considering dropping out — in staggering numbers. Nearly half of district managers and directors rated their staffing shortages as ‘serious’ or ‘very serious’ in a fall 2021 survey from the EdWeek research center.

This is likely to continue. Between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years, the number of people who completed a teacher education program fell by almost 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 obtained [flexibility] that teaching has not happened yet,” she said. “If you go to the pain points of why they quit, it’s flexibility.”

Greater flexibility, however, can come with serious pay cuts.

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

Proximity currently offers $25 to $30 per hour for part-time teachers. The company recently created full-time positions paying $40,000 annually. That’s far less than the estimated average annual teacher salary of $65,090 in the 2020-21 school year and even less than the estimated average salary in Mississippi — the lowest-paid state for teachers — $47,655, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But when teachers go to work for these virtual education services, a lot of things are taken away from them: having to run the bus, attend faculty meetings, mentor the prom, schedule face-to-face meetings with parents and making sure kids go to the nurse to get their medications, Rollack said.

“The more you pile on a teacher outside of their class, the more frustrated they become, and they get burned out and decide to leave,” Rollack said.

For former Chicago public school teacher Joseph Liang, leading Mandarin and science classes for Proximity has been “a dream come true.”

When he worked in a traditional setting, Liang didn’t have a classroom and had to drag a cart around a three-story building, which was physically hard on him. And if a student raised their hand and asked to go see the nurse, it would interrupt the whole class.

He feels more connected to his students now. One of them even went there when he was in the Windy City. Liang and his family took him to dinner.

Although most students don’t benefit from virtual teaching as much as in-person teaching, it makes sense that teachers like Liang like having a more focused set of job responsibilities, said Evan Stone, co-founder and CEO. of Educators For Excellence, which aims to bring the voice of teachers to K-12 policy development.

School districts should take this as a sign that the profession needs rethinking.

“I think it shows that we have a lot of work to do in the country to improve the role of the teacher, 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 today, educators are unable to plan their days and control their time, which impacts their ability to deliver to their students. »

Some experts fear schools are starting to replace regular teachers with virtual teachers

Proximity and Elevate K12 teachers are not unionized, although some work in states and districts with unions. And in many states, they are likely to be identified as temporary employees.

School districts provide an adult to stay with students in the classroom, often a teaching assistant or paraprofessional, while virtual teachers lead classes and work with students. In schools working with Proximity, for example, this person who is physically in the classroom can manage the daily life of the class, contact parents if necessary and help with grading. Ensuring that there is someone from the school district 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 “receives less money and a profit margin is generated.”

Additionally, companies like Proximity and Elevate K-12 can drive down salaries for brick-and-mortar teachers, Abrams said.

He continues to be concerned about the quality of education. “You need personal engagement with a teacher. We have known this forever, since the time of Socrates,” he said.

Children who want to learn, say, Mandarin Chinese might be motivated enough to benefit from virtual lessons offered by these companies, Abrams said.

But if a neighborhood opens the door to this, it’s “a slippery slope”, he warned. “Spanish could be next and you have no language instruction at home, then the same with calculus and then, say, physics. Soon you’ve gutted your entire school. And I think that’s a dangerous path to take.

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