Temper Tantrums, Hurt Feelings at Iowa Online School Hearing

Online education is serious business, as the demonstrated by heated emotions aroused during a House committee hearing in Iowa on Wednesday. Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad included expansion of online school offerings in his recent plan for education reform, prompting Iowa’s analysis.

The tempers flared during a meeting between representatives of the two companies currently running online schools in the state, K12 Inc and Connections Academy, and members of the House Education Committee. The lawmakers lobbed questions at the company representatives that ranged from class sizes to school budgets, staff salaries and lesson plans.

Connections Academy CEO Barbara Dreyer testified that although class sizes for their online schools could be as high as 50 students for elementary school classes and 210 for high schools, the fact that teachers don’t have to engage in “classroom management,” and are provided with the curriculum by the company, allows them to handle the increased number of students.

“Our teachers do not have to provide lesson plans. We provide those,” Dreyer responded. “Our teachers do not have to engage in classroom management to the extent of other teachers.” She said because of this, the company is able to “create efficiencies” that allow instructors to take a higher number of students.

Rep. Nathan Willems then challenged the assertion that students are individually better served by online schools, since both the class sizes and lesson plans were controlled centrally by the company with very little individualizing to account for different student needs.

“Students are going to be able to move at their own pace,” Dreyer replied. “Pace is a very important component to personalization.”

The altercation arose when Dreyer was questioned by a retired teacher and current State Representative Mary Mascher, a Democrat from Iowa City who reminded Dreyer that teaching was about forming connections with students and not exclusively about class work.

Dreyer responded that Mascher could “see for yourself” the relationships that Connections Academy teachers build with students and invited her to one of the schools. Mascher, who said she was coming into the discussion with a bias against 100 percent online learning, didn’t like the tone or choice of words in Dreyer’s response.

“You just stop. I will not be disrespected like that,” Mascher said and got up to leave the meeting.

Despite Dreyer’s assurances that she didn’t mean any disrespect, the committee chose to adjourn the meeting.