Having worked as a consultant for several school districts in Vermont, I know that one of the challenges district in that state face is how to implement a recent legislative mandate to provide a quality preschool for all children. In trying to provide Universal Preschool, school districts face physical and political problems— geographically remote students, undersized and outmoded schools, and pre-existing “Nursery School” programs operated out of private homes— and fiscal problems— the price tag for teachers, aides, and other support staff can be daunting.
A recent article by Thomas Arnett in ESchool News has a possible solution to these thorny issues: online pre-school. Mr. Arnett reports that Utah instituted such a program called Upstart over six years ago and the result are promising:
In the six years since it launched, Upstart’s results have shown students in the program to demonstrate strong gains in early literacy that significantly exceed those of students in matched control groups.
As these cohorts of Upstart students progress through their first few years of school, they continue to outperform their peers on state exams. Most noteworthy is the fact that special education students, low-income students and English learners have the largest gains relative to their comparable peer groups.
Given that Upstart costs just $725 per student, it is a more-than-sensible solution in states where universal preschool does not exist.
A variation of the caveat phrase, “in states where universal preschool does not exist” appears again at the end of the article, with another caveat on top of it regarding affordability:
But for parents who cannot afford private preschool and who do not live in a region with state-funded preschool options, these programs offer valuable access to early learning opportunities.
As many states rush to provide universal preschool education, I would not be at all surprised to see this model expand rapidly. Why? Because politicians realize that getting parents used to the idea of delivering instruction through computers as opposed to having live human beings provide instruction will save millions of dollars over time… and the fact that it can be done for a fraction of the current cost will enable them to keep their promise to expand programs without having to raise taxes, hire hundreds of new teachers, or worry about transportation logistics or facility limitations. A restatement of the last paragraph with a slightly different slant will indicate why these online preschools are likely to spread:
But for politicians who are unwilling to raise taxes to cover the costs of public preschools that are the equivalent to private preschool and who govern a region with NO state-funded preschool options, these programs offer valuable way to claim they are offering access to early learning opportunities.
You can call something a “preschool”… but if it consists of “…15 minutes per day, five days per week, (where) students log into the curriculum to engage in adaptive lessons, digital books, songs, and activities designed to develop their knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science.” it doesn’t warrant the name— especially when it is overseen by an untrained parent. Watch, though: in the next five years I am willing to wager that at least ten states will launch online preschools based on “The Utah Model”— unless they use their $725 voucher to help underwrite the cost of a bona fide preschool or a sectarian preschool that offers Bible instruction.
I get daily feeds from ESchool News, a daily blog that features articles that are often written by technology entrepreneurs or, as in the case of the one featured in this blog post, leaders of non-traditional on-line educational institutions. David Knoche, the Executive Principal of Pikes Peak Early College (PPEC) in Peyton, Colorado, posted an immodestly article titled “Groundbreaking School Blends High School and College Together”. While I am suspicious of articles touting success of institution that are in their infancy, I DID find the model for PPEC to be compelling. As described by Mr. Knoche, PPEC offers a highly personalized approach to high school and post-secondary programs that offers asynchronous on-line coursework augmented by regular interaction with classroom instructors and supplemented with external learning opportunities. Here’s how Mr. Knoche describes the “typical” schedule for a PPEC student:
Days in school consist of teachers leading project-based learning to complement what students are learning online, as well as helping students master the concepts they are learning in the online courses. Students spend the other two days of the week completing online courses at home, participating in internships or shadowing opportunities, or attending classes on community college campuses.
PPEC also offers counseling services, flexible schedules, and monetary support to students in an effort to meet the uniques needs of difference kinds students, which Mr. Knoche characterizes as “high-achieving or elite students to students who aren’t as high-achieving, but are highly driven; first-generation college students; and students from populations that are under-represented in post-secondary institutions.”
As one who finds the traditional high school model designed nearly a century ago to be outmoded and irrelevant to most students, it appears that PPEC has a model that would connect with disengaged students. My only suspicion is that the program appears to have begun a year ago, making it’s claims that students can seamlessly transition from high school to college somewhat incredulous. The PPEC concept, though, IS appealing and could hold promise for States like Vermont and New Hampshire where high school students can attain credits for experiential learning and can cross-enroll in state post-secondary institutions while they are enrolled in high school. Stay tuned to see if PPEC is in existence a decade from now and if, at that time, it is delivering on the promises described in Mr. Knoche’s article.
The Christiansen Institute offers thought provoking weekly articles on the potential for disruptive technology to help public education meet the demands placed on it. This week’s e-issue of their newsletter included an article by Thomas Arnett describing the potential for newly developed apps that rely on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to provide psychological and psychiatric support to schools. Mr. Arnett provides an overview on the use of these new apps as follows:
Untreated mental illness silently plagues a large portion of the United States population. Roughly one in five adults in America suffer from some form of mental illness in a given year, and approximately 60 percent of those cases go untreated. These statistics are similar for teenagers; and educators report that depression, anxiety, and social phobias among youth seem to be on the rise.
Fortunately, a new menu of online mental health resources start to address these unmet needs; and some pioneering options have efficacy results comparable to face-to-face therapy. Programs such as MoodGYM, MyCompass, and Beating the Blues teach principles and techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people suffering from anxiety and depression. Other online solutions designed for teens, such as Bite Back and Base Education, teach students how to focus, reduce stress, handle difficult emotions, and improve social relationships.
Will online alternatives disrupt traditional face-to-face therapy in the not-too-distant future? To answer that question, consider how they measure up to the disruptive innovation litmus tests.
The “litmus test” poses six questions developed by Clayton Christiansen to determine if a new technology has the potential to be “disruptive”— that is if a new technology can result in a paradigmatic change in the way a business is operated or a service is provided:
1. Does it target nonconsumers or people who are over-served by an incumbent’s existing offering in a market?
2. Is the offering not as good as an incumbent’s existing offering as judged by historical measures of performance?
3. Is the innovation simpler to use, more convenient, or more affordable than the incumbent’s existing offering?
4. Does the offering have a technology enabler that can carry its value proposition around simplicity, convenience, or affordability upmarket and allow it to improve?
5. Is the technology paired with a business model innovation that allows it to be sustainable with its new value proposition?
6. Are existing providers motivated to ignore the new innovation and not threatened at the outset?
In assessing the potential for these CBT apps Mr. Arnett acknowledges that the apps fall short on the second question posed in the “litmus test”. They clearly and unarguably fall short when compared to face-to-face therapy:
Online alternatives to therapy fall short on many fronts when compared to visits with professional psychologists. Current online software cannot read and interpret patient’s verbal and nonverbal cues to diagnose mental illnesses with professional accuracy, nor can it identify patients’ needs, preferences, and life circumstances to develop custom-tailored advice. Software also cannot form relationships with patients to motivate them and hold them accountable.
But even with that clear and unequivocal deficiency, the on-line apps are clearly superior to nothing, which is what troubled teens are getting now. Moreover, with some degree of hybridization is might be possible to use apps to help the limited number of trained school personnel address mental health issues. Mr. Arnett concludes with this:
Although professional psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors may scoff at the limitations and risks of online mental health support, online options will not threaten professionals’ livelihood any time soon. Online options may be effective for helping people with moderate and untreated anxiety, depression, and addiction, but they have a long way to go before they can match high-quality professional treatment for more debilitating conditions such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
If online mental health solutions have the potential to disrupt the traditional model of mental health care, the unfolding of this disruption cannot come soon enough for K–12 education. School psychologists, nurses, and social workers are in short supply, and many students do not receive needed mental health treatment. Meanwhile, many teachers find themselves shouldering students’ mental health needs on their own. Unfortunately, when mental illnesses go untreated, students pay the price in lower academic achievement and overall well being.
As my colleagues Julia Freeland Fisher and Michael Horn have written, schools that aim to address student achievement challenges need to integrate across factors beyond academics that affect students’ ability to learn. Mental health is definitely one such factor, and convenient, low-cost, disruptive alternatives to traditional mental health care may prove critical for unlocking schools’ capacity to bring high-quality mental health care under their roofs.
I read Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn’s book, roughly ten years ago and was and still am convinced that their book was full of ideas with great potential for public education. They used the transistor radio as a metaphor to describe how technology might enhance education. Like the transistor radio, technology could deliver instruction (or in this case therapy) in a rapid, low fidelity but inexpensive fashion to a wider audience. The teachers’ (or in this case therapists’) role would change from being the deliverer of low fidelity content to being the “refiner” of the content: they could offer periodic assessments of whether the student was mastering the content— or in this case whether the content was having the intended impact on the student’s well being.
Skeptics abound when it comes to using technology in education, a skepticism driven, in part, by the fear that on-line education will ultimately replace teachers (or in this case therapists) completely. But teachers— like the therapists– should not feel threatened by technology, for just as “Online options may be effective for helping people with moderate and untreated anxiety, depression, and addiction” the online options for instruction can only be effective for helping students who are self-actualized and motivated learners. Just as on-line apps for mental health will never be able to “match high-quality professional treatment for more debilitating conditions such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia”, on-line instruction will never be able to motivate a student to learn and never be able to fully understand the unique needs of each student. That is where the art of teaching comes into play… an art that is being lost as we increasingly teach-to-tests at the expense of addressing each student’s potential.
New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog today featured an article on the decline in spending on public education, a phenomenon writer Eric Levitz characterized as a “disinvestment from our nation’s future”. The diminishment of public education spending described in the article is appalling:
In May 2008, U.S. school departments employed 8.4 million teachers, administrators, and other staff. Today, they employ just 8.2 million, despite the fact that those schools now serve 1 million more students, according to Department of Education estimates. And while those teachers are being asked to serve more students, they’re making less money: According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, weekly wages for public-school teachers have declined 5 percent over the past five years… Between 2008 and 2014 (the last year for which we have full data), state public-education funding declined 6.6 percent. While the stimulus money was still flowing, Uncle Sam was able to ameliorate this austerity somewhat, but still left schools spending 2.4 percent less per student over that period, when adjusting for inflation. And when the stimulus wore off, state and local governments failed to pick up the slack: In 2012, total school funding fell for the first time since 1977. As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes, this cutback wasn’t concentrated on administrative salaries or extravagant construction — instructional spending has fallen at roughly the same rate as overall budgets.
The New York article covered some of the same ground as the NYTimes editorial I blogged about yesterday, emphasizing the impact (and preposterousness) of State-level Reagonomics. Noting that the graying of America will drive up retirement and health care costs and that the reduction in pay for teachers is making the profession less attractive, Eric Levitz concludes with this mind-boggling choice:
In the long run, it will take either a drastic increase in federal investment — and/or the proliferation of low-cost robots — for American schools to truly leave no child behind.
Given the choice between “pro-union Government run schools” and a robot that can teach children at home or in, say, a church basement, what do you think taxpayers will vote for?
USNews and World Report ran an online article by Diane Ravitch that describes the international privatization movement in public education. In the article Ms. Ravitch describes the roots of the privatization movement in our nation and decries the movement by billionaire privatizers in their efforts to open schools in Africa. She writes:
The British multinational corporation Pearson has ambitions to open for-profit schools using its products in many nations across the world. In Africa, a corporation called Bridge International Academies (BIA) is opening for-profit schools in poor countries that cost $1 a week. Liberia is considering outsourcing its entire elementary program to BIA, which is funded by American billionaires Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others from Wall Street.
The Economist magazine wrote a glowing article about BIA’s plan to make low-cost schooling available in Africa, because existing public schools are so poorly resourced. The potential market of hundreds of millions of children is alluring and sure to be profitable. Teachers in the Bridge schools are uncertified; They teach a scripted curriculum from a notebook computer. Many families cannot afford even $1 a week, especially if they have more than one child. Meanwhile, the state is relieved of responsibility to supply what is being outsourced to private enterprise.
Ms. Ravitch then links the international privatization movement to “…ideas and funding that started in the United States” and then describes the way politicians used standardized tests to brand public schools as “failures; how profiteers branded themselves as “reformers” who could fix “failing” public schools by replacing elected school boards with corporate boards and replacing expensive unionized schools with technology-based instruction; and how these profiteers proceeded to pillage state and local school budgets. She was especially (and rightfully) hard on the anti-democratic nature of the charter schools that are tied to the privatization movement, writing:
Charter schools claim to be public schools, but the only thing “public” about them is their funding. They are run by private boards that do not hold open meetings, as elected boards of education do; they are neither transparent nor accountable in their finances.
After reading this paragraph, I was struck by the reality that the governance structure for public education in the United States is unique and anomalous. In most countries there is a national ministry of education that is overseen by the national government. Public school governance is not local, it is not overseen by directly elected boards, and its degree of transparency and accountability is a function of the national leadership. Furthermore, in many parts of the world universal public education is completely unavailable due to infrastructure challenges and/or the kleptocratic and totalitarian leadership at the national level.
If I were an idealistic entrepreneur seeking to increase literacy in the world I would avoid funneling any money to national leaders with a track record of corruption. By providing a means for parents to secure an education for their children such an idealistic entrepreneur could circumvent the national apparatus that skims large sums of money. In doing so, the entrepreneur could greatly expand the number of children in that country who receive an education, albeit an education that is tightly scripted from a notebook computer. In this way the idealistic entrepreneur would be giving parents and their children an opportunity to gain the knowledge and understanding needed to function in a democracy, knowledge and understanding that their current leader might want to withhold from them.
As readers of the blog know, I wholeheartedly share Diane Ravitch’s perspective regarding the privatization in this country. But as I think about the best way to provide education and information to as many citizens of the world as possible as quickly and cheaply as possible, and operate on the assumption that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s intentions are grounded in the idealistic belief that knowledge is power and a necessary pre-requisite for the establishment of democracy, I think this market-based approach in undeveloped countries might be the best way forward in some parts of the world. Who knows, once citizens in undeveloped nations gain knowledge and understanding they might seek a more local form of governance for their schools and seek a better way to become educated.