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.
Sarah Jones, writing in the Wall of Separation, the blog sponsored by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, describes the efforts of several billionaires to introduce public school students to clearly sectarian content… illustrating yet another downside to de-regulation and yet another paradox to those who favor un-schooling or de-schooling.
Jones’ article describes the efforts of the Wilks brothers, who made their fortune fracking, to underwrite “Prager University”, an unaccredited on-line university that is looking to expand into public education by creating “partnerships” with individual schools. Here’s more:
About those videos: On its website, the school lists “I Am The Lord Your God,” “God vs. Atheism: Which Is More Moral?” and “Does God Exist? 4 New Arguments” among its current religion and philosophy offerings. Students and educators interested in political science may choose from courses like “The World’s Most Persecuted Minority: Christians” and “Feminism vs. Truth.”
The “university” says it also plans to release 16 new religion courses in the future. Those courses include “The Rational Case for God’s Existence: Design,” “Why Believe?” and “Is the Bible Sexist?” All will, presumably, be available for educators to use.
To date 14 schools have signed on… but what the article does not delve into is how these billionaire fundamentalists might be able to invest in publicly funded de-regulated charter schools whose curriculum would not be monitored by the State. Are state legislators willing to fund schools that offer a curriculum that is determinedly sectarian? Will they fund Muslim charters as well as fundamentalist Christian charters? This is not a theoretical question given the trend for states to promote ideas like charters.
And here’s a question people like me who advocate personalized learning plans, de-schooling, and un-schooling. If a student master the material presented in a video course like the ones described above, how will that contribute to creating a more unified nation? If a course based on, say, Karen Armstrong’s books on specific religions be acceptable for the attainment of a college credit, why not a course like “The Rational Case for God’s Existence: Design,” “Why Believe?” and “Is the Bible Sexist?” And given that we already have cases of sectarian schools offering on-line courses that public schools are honoring (e.g. Liberty University’s vast on-line course offerings) how can one differentiate between those courses and “The Rational Case for God’s Existence: Design,” “Why Believe?” and “Is the Bible Sexist?”… especially in the environment of de-regulation that exists.
As the internet increases the fragmentation of course offerings it will be increasingly important to find mechanisms for forging unity among diverse belief systems lest our country become divided along religious lines.
As middle class, affluent and aspiring parents despair at standardized testing and the lockstep schooling that results from the emphasis placed on them in public schools, I expect to see more and more of them seeking alternatives to the status quo. One alternative emerging from the set of new approaches is the creation of home-school (or un-school) alliances of parents who work collaboratively to provide learning experiences for their children. In the region where I live, two institutions are beginning to serve children who are home schooled in a semi-systematic fashion: the local library and the Montshire Children’s Museum for Science in Norwich, VT. Libraries, which generally have high speed internet and extensive book and media collections are a natural resource for parents of home schoolers and can become an ad hoc meeting place for parents who provide home schooling for their children. The Montshire is a local treasure. As grandparents, my wife and I take our grandchildren there whenever they visit and no matter their age (they currently range from 2 to 11) they find some activity that engages them for hours. On a recent weekday visit to buy gifts for one of our grandchildren I observed that the museum scheduled ad hoc sessions for home schoolers when they realized that there was a critical mass of them needing opportunities to work collaboratively on projects.
This post was inspired by a Facebook post from my daughter that included a link to KQED’s Mindshift blog post titled “How Libraries are Advancing and Inspiring Schools and Communities”. After reading this it became clear to me that if they so desired, public libraries and small local museums like the Montshire could become learning hubs for those parents who are seeking an alternative to the mindless test-preparation going on in schools… or could be agents for change within schools by helping them redefine the role and mission of the library spaces and science classrooms in our digital age. Imaginative, creative, and aspiring parents are looking for a better way to engage their children… this could be pat of the answer.
For the past several days my wife and I were camping in AZ and NM, trading mud season in New England for the bright skies, dry air, and warmth of the Southwest. In our travels we met a fellow New Englander for breakfast with a group of his friends at a small Mexican restaurant outside of Tucson. Among the group was a grandmother and her two grandchildren who she was homeschooling, one of whom, nine year old Joseph (I am not using his real name), sat next to me. Joseph’s parents both have arduous work schedules: his mother works the night shift at UPS and his dad has a job that takes him out of the area for weeks at a time. In this day and age, unfortunately, these kinds of schedules are not atypical: the private sector wants to optimize personnel usage and family and community life takes a back seat as a result.
Joseph’s family decided to take him out of public school because it was overcrowded and underfunded (and, in all probability, “failing” by NCLB standards). They subsequently decided to take him out of the (undoubtedly for-profit) charter school he was accepted into because it required him to do three hours of meaningless homework each night when he was in second grade and provided no time for him to be outdoors. He is now enrolled in the Arizona Virtual Academy, operated by for-profit K-12 but accredited by the State. He’s happy in his new school. He is able to do projects he is interested in (his current “research paper” was on the effects of too much homework) and is able to progress at a faster pace than he experienced in either of his previous schools. While Joseph doesn’t get to interact regularly with students face-to-face or via Skype, he does have periodic on-line chats with a group of learning peers and plays weekly with a group of fellow fiddlers. His grandmother reported he was more motivated than he was in the public school and far less stressed than he was in his charter school and had nothing but praise for the Virtual Academy.
Joseph and his sister seemed happy to be home schooled… but I couldn’t help but note that when they learned that the restaurant owner’s son was off from school they eagerly left our company to play with him in an adjacent empty room.
Based on my reading about the state of public education in AZ, it is evident that the legislature has accomplished their mission: they’ve driven parents out of publicly funded schools into lower cost for-profit institutions that offer either rigid test-driven curricula or completely flexible and arguably less accountable virtual schools. But Joseph may be an example of a new kind of student… and may offer a way for public education to reinvent itself so that it meets the needs of children. How so?
Virtual learning could be a means of breaking the age-grade cohort factory model of schooling and if public education fought to have that outmoded model replaced with individualization of some form it could capture students like Joseph who are frustrated with the lockstep pace of the factory school and the regimentation of charter schools. Virtual learning could be the means of providing the kind of tailored education progressive educators imagined decades ago but eschew today because it is only being provided by for-profit corporations seeking to maximize profits. Here’s hoping that educators get over the current implementation of virtual learning and see the possibilities it offers for students to master material at their own pace.