Posts Tagged ‘On-line learning’

On Line Public-Private Hybrid: Win-Win or Slippery Slope?

August 4, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

The Factory School: A “Clear Route” that Creates “Excellent Sheep”

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

D.I.Y. Before Youtube“, John Grinpsan’s op ed essay in today’s NYTimes, offers a good overview of the kind of schooling students received in the 19th Century, but misses the glaring shortcomings of the factory school model that replaced it in the 20th Century. Grinspan describes how striving children of the 19th Century left school at an early age to work on the farms or factories often continued their education on their own by reading voraciously and attending literary societies to hone their debating and oratorical skills and deepen their understanding of the books and magazines they read. Grinspan’s description of the lives of striving children in the 19th Century undoubtedly glosses over the horrific lives of many children who were pressed into service in perilous mines, grim factories, and hardscrabble homesteads, but it does highlight the value of independent learning. His essay not only romanticizes the life of children in the 19th Century, though, it oversells the virtues of the education “system” that replaced became the focal point of the lives of children since that time:

After 1900, public schools proliferated and child labor dwindled, pushing up graduation rates and making schools truly systematic. This more structured style reduced individual drive, but offered an accessible, mass system that impressively bridged class divisions.

Most of all, it provided a clear route from ages 5 to 18. Well over a century later, we have no sense of how truly pathless life felt before our educational system — and how that uncertainty often inspired young people to set off on their own.

Our “truly systematic” schools have NOT eliminated the feeling of a “truly pathless life” for children today… or for children of the past several decades. The factory model for education created a “clear route from ages 5 to 18” but that route was an artifact imposed from the outside and from the top down. Children who bridled at the loss of freedom such a “clear route” imposed found their own way outside the system and children whose backgrounds did not prepare them for entry into the “clear route” were branded as “failures” and forced to develop their own paths that often led them outside of “the system”.

The testing regimen imposed from the outside and the top down today is making the absurdity of the “clear route” more evident. Consequently more and more disaffected parents are looking elsewhere, augmenting on-line coursework with devices like “the literary” to help their children interact with peers.

To paraphrase Grinspan’s closing paragraph, I hope we can re-kindle the 19th century’s opinionated go-aheadism by abandoning the 20th century’s structure, using technology and small group seminars to provide young people with a chance to find their own path to the 21st century. Maybe it starts AFTER this long, lazy summer vacation as more and more parents abandon the “passive, standardized process” that is creating “excellent sheep”.

Assessments Crucial for Implementation of Competency-Based Education

June 4, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Micro Schools Have Tremendous Promise IF……

May 13, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

One Arizona Anecdote with Two Different Endings

May 13, 2015 Leave a comment

I read a post by Diane Ravitch describing a study conducted in AZ examining the effect of their expansive charter and choice arrangement and called to mind an encounter I had on a recent trip to Arizona. After spending an afternoon hiking with a friend in a canyon Saguaro National Forest, he invited us to join him the next morning for breakfast at a small family owned Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of Tucson.  One of the members of the breakfast group was a grandmother who was homeschooling her two grandchildren children using the AZ virtual charter school operated by K12, a for profit charter chain. She loved it for several reasons:

  • her grandkids kids weren’t in large classrooms where they were anonymous
  • her grandkids could move at their own pace and do the work when they wanted to do it;
  • her grandkids could do outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking
  • her grandson could spend more time working on playing the fiddle.
  • the flexible schedule enabled the kids to do the work when they wanted to do it and when it was mutually convenient for everyone.

It sounded like the school her grandson had been assigned to was becoming progressively understaffed and overcrowded and— as she and her grandson described it— “all they worked on was getting ready for tests”. Generalizing from the particular can be dangerous, but from what the grandmother and her grandchild reported there are many who are abandoning bricks and mortar for virtual education.

There are two possible conclusions one could draw from this anecdote. Some would cite this as evidence that the K12 charters are giving youngsters an opportunity to spread their wings, that virtual education can work, that public education’s factory model is failing and needs to be replaced…. and I would agree with each of these conclusions. However I look at this anecdote as evidence that the ones who benefit most from AZ’s virtual education initiative are the shareholders of the virtual schools and the ones who lose the most are the children left in the overcrowded and test crazed public schools— the kids who don’t have a grandmother to help them out or the kids whose parents cannot afford to send them to one of the spiffy new private schools that operate in a parallel universe. The AZ legislature’s determination to starve the “government school” beast and emphasize test scores is having the intended result: it is forcing affluent children out of public schools and providing more evidence that “schools are failing”… The sad reality is that other legislatures across the country are using this ALEC model to accomplish the same end.

WIll the Nebraska State Board of Education Abandon the Industrial Model?

May 10, 2015 Leave a comment

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!

AltSchool: The Right Idea Proposed by the Wrong People

May 8, 2015 Leave a comment

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.