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USA Today Article Describes Alice-in-Wonderland Reality of Remote Learning

June 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Given the mainstream media’s overriding narrative that public education is “failing” children, I am not surprised to see articles like the one Erin Richards wrote for USA Today beginning to emerge. The article describes the “hell” parents went through in the Spring when schools closed due to the COVID 19 outbreak and schools instituted remote learning. Had the article stuck to the heroic efforts parents made in response to the pandemic, it would have been fine. But the article seemed to insinuate that somehow this situation was the teachers’ fault and that they should be expected to ramp up their online skills so that parents can go back to their lives. The jabs are subtle put persistent.

After noting in one of the opening paragraphs that despite the best efforts of teachers, virtual learning didn’t work”, Ms Richards goes on to state that even though some kind of remote learning is likely to take place next year, teachers are not getting ready for it:

Many reopening plans rely on hybrid learning schedules, where students attend school on alternating days or weeks and learn from home on the other days, on a computer where feasible.

Yet America’s educators know little about how to improve the online learning experience – and they’re spending almost no time or energy trying to figure it out before the fall term starts.

This is a cheap shot at the teachers, most of whom were as weary as parents at the conclusion of the school year and many of whom had their own children to teach at home as well. Moreover, as Ms. Richards goes on to explain, the TEACHERS know little because research on virtual learning is virtually non-existent. And despite the fact that they have failed mightily, Ms. Richards looks to online charter schools for guidance on how to educate children remotely because, despite their abysmal track record, their business is booming!

Still, business is up at virtual charters since the pandemic began, said company leaders at Connections Academy and K12 Inc., which power a majority of virtual charters in America.

They attributed low achievement and graduation rates over the years to low-achieving students transferring in from traditional schools.

“Less than 20% of students who come to us are learning at the grade level they entered,” said Nate Davis, CEO of K12.

So if the charters on doing poorly because they can’t educate unmotivated students, why should we assume that they will do any better when they are educating ALL students? Well… the charter school leaders have the answer to that question:

For other students, particularly those with a committed parent in the home, virtual schooling can be highly tailored and effective, said Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder of Connections.

“There’s a critical role the family plays,”she said. “When kids are little you need that adult presence. And they need to be communicating with that child’s teacher on a regular basis.”

So we’ve come full circle: the parents wish they didn’t have to teach would do more; the media wishes the teachers would do more and look to charters; the charters claim they will work if parents are engaged. Somewhere there is a rabbit with a close who is late for a very important date!

After describing all of the personal and personnel challenges districts face with remote learning, which include the renegotiation of contracts and overworked administrators struggling with logistical issues, Ms. Richards describes another Alice-in-Wonderland reality: computer and internet access.

Even if teachers could be trained to do it better, virtual learning would still have a glaring accessibility problem. The households least likely to have the two things necessary for quality virtual learning to take place — a computer and high-speed internet — are low-income households. And those households are the places where children fell behind the most in spring 2020.

At least 15 million out of America’s more than 50 million schoolchildren live in homes without access to a computer, or without access to high-speed internet, according to a new national report released today that tries to quantify the extent of the so-called “homework gap.”

And about 300,000 to 400,000 teachers also lacked access to computers or high-speed Internet, the study estimated.

I couldn’t begin to describe the byzantine world of internet provision in a short paragraph… but suffice it to say I do not have access to high speed internet because the only cable company’s feed stops .4 miles from my home and I’ve been trying for eight years to get it connected and learned that the problems have to do with ownership of poles, the Public Utilities Board, and the lack of residences along the stretch of road I live on. I was heartened at the outset of the pandemic to see a truck from a cable provider moving methodically down our road only to learn that the last stretch of the connection was impossible because of the height of a pole owned by the electric company… or was it the phone company? To make a long story short, the electric company is now installing higher poles in strategic locations which MIGHT make it possible for me to gain access to high speed internet from a single provider. I haven’t been able to get a handle on the cost because the line isn’t installed yet. I offer this convoluted personal experience to illustrate that even IF Congress passed a bill to provide the estimated $6,000,000,000 needed for high speed internet it wouldn’t come our way any time soon. And while the current internet service providers and anti-government libertarians might cringe to read this, I think that the government might have been able to provide the service a lot faster and a lot cheaper.

DeVos Doubles Down on Distribution of Dollars to Non-Public Schools

June 26, 2020 Leave a comment

Given three times as much money to spend as Arne Duncan received for his misguided Race to the Top initiative, and given a widening gap between the children raised in affluence and those raised in poverty, one would hope that the US Secretary of Education would use the windfall of federal funds to help close the funding gap created by the disparity in wealth. But with Betsy DeVos at the helm and the GOP still in control in the Senate, that is not going to happen. Instead, according to Cory Turner’s NPR report, Ms DeVos has developed two options for public schools that AASA ED Dan Domenech describes as “…an opportunistic money grab, using the pandemic environment to advance the privatization agenda.”

The NPR report describes the two choices given to public schools as follows:

Option 1: If a district wants to spend the money on interventions that will reach all students — not just low-income students — it must also pay for “equitable services,” such as tutoring or transportation, for all private school students in that district.

This is a hotly disputed interpretation of the CARES Act that would force public schools to put hundreds of millions of dollars toward private school services. According to an analysis by the Learning Policy Institute, this reading of the law would increase private schools’ share of CARES Act dollars from $127 million to $1.5 billion.

Option 2: A district can instead choose to focus its share of CARES Act money on low-income students. In this case, it would only need to provide equitable services for private schools based on how many low-income students those schools serve.

While the second option appears to favor low-income students, public school advocates say this alternative is onerous and unworkable for many districts. Some under-resourced schools would be left out, they say, because under the new rule, the money can only go to schools that received federal Title I dollars in the 2019-20 school year. But not all schools that are eligible for Title I aid ultimately receive it, due to funding limitations.

Clearly Ms. DeVos’ “choice” is really no choice at all, especially given that the public schools’ business offices are already stretched thin in trying to develop alternative plans for reopening. The second option, which is clearly more beneficial for low income students, requires onerous paperwork while the first option, which directs over a billion dollars to private schools, requires a simple calculation, the cutting of checks to private schools based on that calculation, and a slug of federal funds that can effectively be used however the district chooses. How so, when a district is given the opportunity to “…spend the money on interventions that will reach all students” they can use those funds to underwrite the costs they incurred to provide remote learning (which are clearly “interventions that will reach all students”) which, in turn, will relieve them of paying for those unforeseen costs with their operating budget. That, in turn, will give the districts the funds they will need to prepare schools for the 2020-21 reopening. That sounds like a reasonable way to use the CARES funds… but the hitch is that in order to use the funds in that fashion the public schools need to funnel millions to private schools— millions that COULD have been used to provide additional support for children on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The net effect: the poor and underserved students on the wrong side of the digital divide suffer even more and the shareholders who operate privatized charters get relief from the federal government.

Oh Boy! Poor Performing Online Platform Sees “Great Tailwind” On the Horizon… While Public Schools Face Unparalleled Headwinds

June 24, 2020 Leave a comment

The headline for Hechinger Report’s Sarah Butromyowitz’ latest article reads:

Education companies see an “upside to the pandemic” for business

Online education company K12 Inc. told shareholders it expects increasing acceptance of online education, increased enrollment

The article goes on to describe the rosy forecast issued to K12 shareholders based on the premise that online education will continue and parents will be seeking out alternatives to the slapdash programs put together by public schools. This might be acceptable if some kind of regulations or some kind of oversight was in place to monitor the performance of online schools… but because none exists a flawed enterprise like K12 could rake in millions as a result of the pandemic. And, Ms. Butromyowitz’ article notes, K12 DOES have a flawed performance:

K12 Inc. has faced frequent criticism about poor student performance and been subject to legal scrutiny. In 2016, the company reached a $168.5 million settlement with the California attorney general over allegations that it used ads that misled parents about student success and parent satisfaction, and that it inflated attendance numbers to get more money from the state. The company paid the state $8.5 million and expunged/wiped clean $160 million owed by the schools it managed. K12 has denied all wrongdoing and says it had never attempted to make schools pay this money.*

And as posts over the years on this site and others have noted, the problem is not limited to a single corporation: it is baked into the business model used to turn a profit:

Problems such as low graduation rates, dismal student achievement and high student turnover at many K12 schools are the result of a business model that prioritizes keeping down the costs of educating students, said Neil Campbell, director of innovation for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy institute.

“They can have their marketing materials talk about all this personalized attention and all this increased flexibility, but what they don’t talk about is they massively understaff all these schools … and unload all of that on to parents,” Campbell said.

And therein lies the problem: the kind of online programs public schools pulled together on short notice often came across as supported homeschooling as opposed to computer assisted tutoring. This shifting of responsibility to parents could make them susceptible to advertising pitches like those made by the likes of K12, and profiteers like K12 are ready to roll out all kinds of advertisements in the months ahead:

(K12) also plans to spend more advertising dollars to reach prospective students and parents through websites such as Facebook and YouTube. “We’ll have more digital and viral messages than we’ve ever had before,” (K12 CEO) Davis said. Between 2017 and 2019, K12 spent on average $37.4 million annually on advertising, according to SEC filings.

Assuming K12 pays its teachers $35,000 per year (which is probably on the high side), they could have used their advertising budget to hire over 1000 teachers— which almost assuredly would have improved the performance of its students without sacrificing its bottom line. But K12 sees no reason to change its model…. it sees only happy days on the horizon:

On the earnings call (to major shareholders and investors), Davis emphasized that the pandemic could increase acceptance of online education. “This moment will permanently change how the general public, school districts and regulators think about our business,” Davis said. “The short-term positive impact of the pandemic may be modest … The long-term effect we see providing a great tailwind to our business model.”

Just what public schools need: a “great tailwind” to a failed business model and the very time they are facing a headwind unlike any experienced since the Depression.