Another year, another study and no solutions are in sight because only those with the least political muscle and the most need are the ones who suffer the most. As reported in Education Week as well as other news outlets, the third annual CoSN Infrastructure Survey reports that gaps persist in schools and in homes with– no surprise– rural and less affluent school districts and homes having less access to broadband and wifi access than urban, suburban, and affluent school districts and homes. And why is this the case? The second bullet in the Education Week summary by Benjamin Herold has the answer:
- Cost: Money is still seen as the biggest barrier to robust school connectivity: 46 percent of survey respondents identified the cost of monthly recurring charges as their biggest problem, followed by 34 percent of who cited high upfront capital costs.
E-rate funds, which were expected to help close the digital divide, are being challenged because fewer and fewer homes are using land lines, a factor that the survey indicated would affect 90% of the districts who responded to the survey.
This persistent technology disparity contributes to the persistent disparity between students raised in poverty and those raised in affluent homes as children and schools without readily available wi-fi cannot engage in innovative practices like the flipped classroom or research assignments that rely on internet searches as opposed to leafing through outdated encyclopedias. So the affluent suburban schools issue I-pads to each child while economically challenged schools send home worksheets… and we wonder why the performance gap persists.
Diane Ravitch had several posts yesterday on the deficiencies of Outcome Based Education, posts that yielded several strong dissents based on B.F. Skinner’s theories, computer-based individualized instruction, and early attempts at outcome based and self-paced education that relied heavily on handouts. I remain convinced that until we abandon our current mental model of education as one based on lockstep progression based on age based cohorts we will remain stuck in the same arguments I’ve witnessed for the four decades I’ve worked in public school administration.
We’ve used OBE based on common standards for decades in one area that requires students to demonstrate mastery with both academic and performance assessments… and a brief history of the delivery of this content in this discipline might shed some light on this issue and also on the direction public education could be headed.
Everyone in our country who possesses a drivers license passed both an academic assessment (typically a multiple choice test) and a performance assessment (typically an over-the-road review with a police officer). The standards a student must master in order to obtain a driver’s license are universal. The time required to master the academic and performance skills varies widely. Students who fail the assessments can re-take them as many times as is needed, but once an individual masters the skills as measured by the written and performance tests they receive a license that is no different from anyone else’s. Students who received the training in a structured program offered by a certified instructor received an additional benefit: insurers rewarded the completion of such a program with a reduced rate because their data showed that such students experienced a lower accident rate.
Students used to receive training for these OBE assessments in public schools but in most states the responsibility for learning these skills has shifted out of school and into the private sector. The rationale for this shift was two-fold: the cost for providing the equipment needed for training was high and the insurance benefits that resulted from the attainment of certificate would enable parents to fund the program out-of-pocket instead of having the program funded by taxpayers.
When public schools dropped Drivers Education, private drivers education schools proliferated. Some of the schools were staffed by former certified teachers whose compensation ad benefits were lower than those offered by public schools and others were staffed by instructors with credentials determined by insurance companies. Oh… and some of the students who might have experienced the financial benefits of taking a publicly funded course lost the opportunity to do so because their parents could not afford the out-of-pocket costs associated with enrolling in a privately operated school operated by an accredited teacher. Most of them DID get their drivers license but paid an insurance premium for several years thereafter.
I trust that readers of this blog can see how this brief history of drivers education might apply to the trends in public education we are witnessing today… and might highlight the consequence of our obsession with having everyone learn at the same pace. Because we accept the current model of schooling we fail to ask some basic questions:
=>Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
=>Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
=>Why do we group students at all?
=>Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
=>Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?
All of these practices are in place because they result in “efficiency” in the factory school… and until we change our minds about how schools are organized, until we replace our conception of schools as a factory with a new mental model, we will continue measuring “quality” by giving standardized tests to students grouped in “grade levels” and recycling “new ideas” and “reforms” based on ways to run the factory more efficiently.
Several years ago public schools decided to outsource the attainment of the drivers license “badge”. The “badges” being developed by private sector enterprises (e.g. IT certifications) are superseding the “diplomas” on the back end of the factory. How long before the same phenomenon occurs in public schools?
Over the past several weeks I’ve read several articles in technology related journals and progressive education blogs on the obsolescence of the diploma and its replacement with “badges” that signify “mastery” as opposed to “coverage”. As one who has long advocated mastery learning and was drawn to the idea of having a series of badges replace traditional diplomas, I offered the drivers license as a prime example of how badges might work. One obtains a divers license “badge” by demonstrating a combination of abstract knowledge (the passing of a pencil and paper test) with applied knowledge (the passing of the performance test). This same method of signifying “mastery” could (and I would argue should) be applied to every form of learning.
With that context, I found “The Rise of Micro-Schools”, a post on the Steelemaley blog, intriguing and promising. The Micro-schools described in the post would probably be categorized as “un-schooling” or “de-schooling” since there is no evidence that adults are creating learning modules. Instead, the students in the international micro-schools share a passion for ecology and instead of only reading about it, they are gathering data that scientists can use to inform their research, witnessing ecology first hand, working collaboratively in face-to-face situations and virtual international teams, and putting their findings and ideas into practice. While the post doesn’t say so explicitly, it is evident that the students are working with the guidance and support of adults as opposed to the direction and monitoring of adults.
Could this work for all children? It could if we determined that the purpose of schooling was to create young adults who are capable of working independently with minimal supervision. As long as we sustain our factory model of education, the one designed to churn out compliant employees who will work within defined frameworks, we will undervalue independence and interdependence and persist in our beliefs that anything else is impossible. Without saying so explicitly, blogger Steelemaley is indicating it’s time to challenge the dominant paradigm.
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.