No, this isn’t another piece about whether the NCAA should permit payment to college athletes, provide enough money for food, or allow college athletes to hold a job. This is about the NCAA’s regulation of students’ eligibility for Division I and II athletics based on their coursework in high school. Specifically their online coursework.

A growing number of students are taking online courses for credit in high school. The NCAA watches these courses to make sure they aren’t some scheme just to give students credit with no learning happening so that the students can continue their athletic career at the expense of their academics in college, the antithesis of what the student athlete is supposed to be about.

In its latest action regulating this space, the NCAA declared that, after this school year, the coursework from 24 schools that use K12, Inc. online curriculum—and often K12, Inc.-employed teachers—will no longer be accepted toward the initial-eligibility requirements.


It’s not entirely clear because the NCAA didn’t say explicitly. One person there told me that based on student-specific information collected during a review of schools placed previously on extended evaluation status, the NCAA staff determined that “several K-12 schools/programs do not meet the requirements of NCAA non-traditional core course legislation.” Not terribly illuminating.

But according to K12, Inc., it occurred because the NCAA didn’t believe that the teacher-student interaction was enough in those courses—a pillar of learning and a giveaway that the courses lack sufficient rigor, in the NCAA’s view.

Let me ignore for a moment the evidence that more interaction in online learning may not always be a good thing (see here), particularly for novice learners and, of course, depending on the desired learning outcome. And let me leave aside that the NCAA regulations of online learning have historically been incredibly input based as opposed to focusing on what it should care about: actual student learning outcomes (see the perils of the former approach here, even as I have some understanding of why the NCAA does this given the lack of good transparency on real student outcomes in high schools across America and the truth that the NCAA has caught some bad offenders thankfully). And I’ll even ignore the 22 full-time virtual schools that lost eligibility that often educate top tennis players and the like given their flexibility and very different forms of interaction between students and teachers given the asynchronous learning environment and parental involvement.

Instead I’ll just focus on two of the schools I know somewhat well. Silicon Valley Flex Academy and San Francisco Flex Academy. Two blended-learning schools in California where yes, students work on self-paced online curriculum, but also where just walking in to the brick-and-mortar school with in-person teachers present, you can’t help but see students and teachers interacting around learning. Regularly. At Silicon Valley Flex the teachers have worked to incorporate more group, project-based learning, too, for example. There are breakout rooms all around the school where students engage in small group instruction with teachers and labs.

So what is the NCAA objecting to that California, land of input-based regulation for schools, isn’t?

If we move beyond looking at inputs, the two blended-learning schools seem to have reasonable student academic outcomes, too. Silicon Valley Flex received a 789 on the California Academic Performance Index, a measure that rates the academic growth of schools on a scale up to 1,000 where 800 is the targeted score. San Francisco Flex received a 733, not stellar but a score that represents a big and steady improvement from previous years. One would think that this is what the NCAA would want to see.

I don’t know of course what went on behind the scenes between the NCAA and K12, Inc. I have no idea how well K12, Inc. cooperated with the NCAA review. But what I’ve described lends considerable doubt—and, were it not so serious for some of the students who I am sure are affected, arguably some absurdity—to the NCAA’s case across the board. Not a good goof.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.