Earlier this week, Michigan Public Radio ran a story on how Manistee (MI) Area School District’s newly launched on-line charter school offers programs to 2800 students, more than twice the enrollment in the current district. The result? Manistee students have a wider array of courses to choose from and the school district raked in roughly $500,000 in additional revenue or $300/student. How did a small, rural NW Michigan district pull off such a feat? They did have help from a K12, a national charter chain who, presumably, provided the technological infrastructure the district needed to implement the program. The public radio report glossed over the specifics, but did offer this background information on how charter’s can bring new revenues to a school district:
All charter authorizers take a percentage of their charter schools’ revenue for overseeing the academies they run.
The standard is to take 3%.
For Michigan’s largest charter authorizers, Grand Valley State and Central Michigan Universities, that 3% amounts to more than $6 million apiece.
From this report it sounds as if the State funded colleges are the primary beneficiaries of the charter law in Michigan and that students, presumably, benefit from the offerings. But there are often other entities who benefit as well— and the passing mention of K12 implies the for profit entities gain from the implementation:
…Manistee leaders attracted online education giant K12 Inc, signing a five year contract to run the new Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Charter Academy.
It’s hard to know what services K12 provides and how much they are compensated for their role in overseeing “…the new Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Charter Academy.” But a report from the Detroit Free Press earlier this year noted that “…charters collect nearly $1 billion a year in state aid, often with little accountability, transparency or academic achievement.” The context of this news report was the fact that 11 of the charter authorizers in Michigan were “at risk of being suspended” because of shoddy management practices, an indication that State oversight of the program was lacking.
From my perspective, a partnership between a small rural school district strapped for revenue and an “online education giant” could be promising. Small rural districts often contract with large bus fleets to deliver students to school and many schools and colleges contract with food service firms to provide school lunch programs. If an “online education giant” is providing the technological infrastructure and software needed to manage a virtual academy it seems like a win-win. The students can enroll in more courses, no teachers lose their jobs, the “online education giant” can earn a marginal profit, the district budgets are held harmless and, perhaps, restored to previous levels, and taxpayers are relieved of absorbing additional costs.
But turning some of the operations over to an “online education giant” could be inviting that giant to assume more and more responsibility over time. If a science teacher retires, the “online education giant” could offer to have science instruction delivered on-line… or if a school board wanted to save even more money it could replace the entire staff of a school with “tutors” who would “coach” students working on-line. The “online education giant” is unlikely to be satisfied with 3% of the profit when it might be possible to collect a higher percentage or it could increase it’s profits by increasing it’s “market share”.
As one who has consulted in poor, small rural districts in New England, I can see the promise and the peril… and given the many school boards in most New England states it is easy to see that the promise of on-line partnerships as opposed to the peril. And as one who believes that close government supervision of all government spending is needed I would hope that other states learn from Michigan’s “deregulation”: for-profit entities will cut corners to make a profit if they are given the opportunity.
Clayton Christensen’s weekly newsletter is full of thought provoking posts. This past weekend’s edition featured one by Michael Horn titled “Moving Past Summative vs. Formative Assessments” that describes how the technical challenges on-line learning institutions face often overshadow the need for well conceived assessments designed to measure mastery. He asserts that assessments are THE key element in CBE:
But assessments are the crux of a competency-based approach. Neglecting them misses dialing in on one of the things that is so critical to CBE being transformational, robust, and rigorous: how do we know if and when a student has achieved proficiency, fluency, and mastery of a competency? In missing this, too often providers fall back on a familiar pattern by merely focusing on the summative assessments at the end of a course of study rather than valid assessments that are deployed rapidly and frequently throughout.
Horn then offers an anecdote contrasting the training provided to assembly line workers by Ford Motor Company and Toyota. Ford uses a de facto trial-and-error technique where the trainee is placed on an assembly line and shown how to install a car seat by following multiple steps in sequence. This resulted in a high failure rate on the trainee’s part before he learned how to perform the task, a rate that might be discouraging to someone who lacks the wherewithal to stay with a task despite multiple failures. Toyota, on the other hand, demonstrated each step of the process in sequence and made certain the trainee mastered the first step of the sequence before proceeding to the next step… and provided the trainee with the time they needed to master each step.
While the article did not say so explicitly, it is clear that the way we educate children today in age-based grade levels is more akin to Ford and the way home-schoolers and un-schoolers educate children is more like Toyota. Moreover, internships– where someone is thrown into a short-term unpaid assignment with no training or expectation of mastery— are more akin to Ford while apprenticeships— where someone is learning under the tutelage of a master craftsperson— are more akin to Toyota. Needless to say, our culture, our workplaces, and therefore our schools, are more akin to Ford’s assembly lines where the fit survive and everyone else falls by the wayside. If we want to move toward mastery in schools we might need to move toward a mastery mindset in the workplace as well.
Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Schools, wrote an article in EducationNext describing the kind of schools I would like to see in the future for all students. Titled “The Rise of AltSchool and Other Micro-Schools“, Horn’s essay describes several new “micro-schools” that offer personalized, individualized on-line instruction augmented by project-based learning and Socratic seminars. In Horn’s words: “Think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and home schooling meets private schooling.” He writes:
“Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education.”
As noted in earlier posts, I believe that in the coming years that “niche” of dissatisfied families is likely to explode given the emphasis on standardized tests in today’s public schools, an emphasis that is unlikely to go away. The emphasis on standardized testing narrows the curriculum and reinforces age-based cohort groupings, both of which contradict the notion of personalization and neither of which capitalize on the potential for computer technology to individualize instruction. Worse, as engaged parents who are dissatisfied with this constraining curriculum leave public schools their children will, I believe, have a substantially richer educational background than the students left in the public schools making the economic divide even worse than it is now. A virtuous circle could replace this vicious cycle IF politicians abandoned the use of standardized tests to rate and evaluate schools. Standards-BASED tests, used as FORMATIVE assessments to measure the attainment of mastery, would help students, teachers, and parents determine if a student has mastered skills presented in the classroom or learned outside of the classroom. StandardIZED tests, used as SUMMATIVE assessments to measure the rate of mastery, will penalize immature and/or disinterested and/or disengaged learners. And when these summative assessments are used to judge schools and teachers, they become the focal point of instruction. When the curriculum is narrowed to only those topics that can be measured using a mass-produced standardized test creative and capable students become disengaged and their parents begin to look elsewhere for schooling. In the comment section, I appealed to Michael Horn and other writers who advocate the use of technology to individualize instruction, to speak out against the way tests are currently being used to judge schools, students, and teachers. If they did so, it might be possible for public schools to adapt to the kind of personalized approaches used in micro-schools… otherwise, micro-schools will expand by drawing creative and engaged students away from the public schools.
An article in the Omaha World Herald by Joe Dejka describes how a home schooled student thrived by moving through the curriculum he and his mother designed at a pace that matched his learning ability. Based on the description of the young man’s studies, it is evident that he was extraordinarily gifted in mathematics, but it was also evident that one of the underlying reasons his mother removed him from public schools was their emphasis on compliance and required learning that was below her son’s ability… and the article notes that home schooling has increased from under 2% of the population to 2.5%… a small increase but significant enough to get the attention of the NE State Superintendent and State Board.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said quality home-schools do offer some lessons.
“If you don’t spend time engaging students, allowing them to engage in their own learning, they won’t learn as much,” he said.But he said it’s not easy to introduce flexibility and personalized learning in a public education system that he describes, tongue-in-cheek, as “a good Industrial Age model.”Members of the Nebraska State Board of Education have indicated that they believe individualized learning plans could be a way to better engage public school students. They’ve included personalized learning as a goal in their newly minted and evolving school accountability system. Just what those plans would look like is not clear at this point.
Much of what public schools currently do is, in Blomstedt’s words, “compliance driven,” meaning what happens in schools is a product of schools following laws and rules. Basic graduation requirements, academic standards and hours in school are, more or less, dictated to public schools.
The article described how the State board has been briefed on competency based education, and at least one member was enthusiastic about the possibilities:
Glen Flint, a state board member who home-schooled his children, said he’s interested in a version of individualized learning called competency-based education.
Generally, competency- based education is designed to let students advance at their own pace, moving to the next level when they demonstrate proficiency rather than having advancement be based on age or seat time.
As I noted in a comment I left, the NE Board should think about how standardized testing reinforces the “Industrial Age” model. If they are serious about competency based education and personalized learning plans they will abandon the testing of students based on age cohorts. I, for one, would encourage them to move forward… but I doubt that they are ready to take on Arne Duncan and the billionaire boys club who want to use standardized tests as the basis for closing schools!
I just finished reading Natasha Singer’s NYTimes article “AltSchool Raises $100 Million and Plans to Open More Schools” and the 50 comments that accompanied the article. This exercise reinforced my belief that changing the existing paradigm away from the factory model will be an enormous challenge. The comments that garnered the most “likes” fell into the following categories:
- ad hominem attacks on the founders (technology executives) and funders (tech billionaires)
- assertions that this was all an effort to get more money (which may be a by product but appears to be a secondary motive)
- resource mis-allocation (e.g. philanthropists should advocate the abandonment of standardized testing)
- the outrageous cost for the school (the annual cost, excluding grants, was $20,000/year)
- the impersonality of technology.
I found the general notion described in the article to be appealing. If I understand how AltSchool operates, the teacher will serve as an intermediary when cognitive mismatches occur… as they do in classrooms today… and when engagement wanes… as it does in classrooms today. In today’s schools and the schools I grew up in cognitive mismatches are a given and engagement is not a primary focus of teachers. Teachers are responsible for covering material and if students don’t understand it or are not interested in it the blame and responsibility falls on them. Standardized testing has exacerbated this notion, driving parents of those with cognitive mismatches and parents of those hose disengagement is leading to emotional problems to seek alternatives to the factory model we have in place and are seemingly unwilling to abandon.
I have long believed that technology can move education toward an individualization model that was impossible 50 years ago and free schools from the sort-and-select factory model toward one of mastery learning. To those who do not want to consider a different model because it is promoted by technology executives and funded by philanthropists who may (or may not) profit from it , I offer this aphorism:
If you want to get what you’ve always got keep doing the what you’ve always done.