Sunday, September 25, 2011

Internet schools: a terrible idea?

When I was laid off by the University of Michigan in 2002, I had six months of unlimited access to Michigan Virtual University. This seemed like the perfect time and opportunity to upgrade my skills, so I tried three information technology–related courses. They were so terrible that I never completed any of them. Although self-paced, computer-based instruction should have been easy for someone familiar with the subject matter and used to working all day on a computer, I found them more frustrating than enlightening. The only detailed complaint I recall today is that they insisted on my getting the right answer in a particular way. For example, I had to do things using function keys rather than keystroke shortcuts or menu options. This makes no sense: if I can accomplish the task correctly, what difference does it make how I choose to do so? Years of learned behavior became a handicap rather than an advantage. This experience left me wary and suspicious of “digital schooling” as a substitute for traditional instruction.

My suspicions were also fed by reading about early classroom implementations of computers in which they seemed to be used most often as “digital ditto sheets.” Anyone my age will recall the smeary purple ditto sheets that too often delivered “drill and kill” experiences rather than useful, targeted instruction that actually reinforced skills. If the exercise is that poorly conceived, the medium will not help to engage the learner for long.

So, I approach Senator Colbeck’s Senate Bill 619 on Cyber Schools with some trepidation. His bill would allow unlimited cyber charter schools to enroll unlimited numbers of students from anywhere in the state with the sole qualification for the applicants that they “demonstrate experience in delivering a quality education program that improves pupil academic achievement.”

I have a few questions about that experiential qualification. What kind of pupils? Does success with upper-middle-class students mean one will be equally successful with at-risk children? What kind of improvement? Improvement over what or compared with whom? Most children will, no matter what, learn more with time; how much more is enough? If a sponsor has managed to run a preschool wherein the pupils make progress, does that make the organization qualified to run a cyber high school?

I worry about this because it is much more difficult to produce high academic achievement with some students than with others. We hold all of our children to the exact same standard now, ignoring the fact that some are born with many more advantages than others.

Census data from the 2010 American Community Survey shows that Michigan, along with every other state, experienced a another decline in real household income from 2009 to 2010. Our median household income remains some ten percent below the national average. Even in relatively affluent Canton, it dropped nearly 14% in one year. When you hear the complaint about how many Americans pay no federal income taxes (although they pay plenty of Social Security, sales, and other taxes), that is because of how little money they make in the first place! When you hear the complaint that our very wealthiest people pay a huge dollar amount of taxes, that’s because they’re the ones with the enormous wealth! If you compare the USA internationally, only Mexico exhibits a larger gap between richest and poorest, and only Russia exhibits more concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

Nearly a quarter of Michigan’s children under age 18 are living in poverty. It is very well documented that American public schools produce students who score near the top worldwide — IF you remove the children living in poverty from every tested nation’s scores. Our disappointing scores overall are directly related to the high (and increasing!) proportion of our children who are poor.

What do you suppose might happen if a poor teen is offered a computer and subsidized Internet connection so that he can enroll in a cyber school? Since any such school would receive the 2011–12 state minimum funding of $6,846 per pupil, it could well afford to provide these to its students. After all, it need not provide transportation to a building that is lit and heated, cleaned and maintained, or staffed with a reasonable ratio of teachers. Why, the teachers it does provide may not even have to meet any traditional standards, since SB 619 is tie-barred with SB 618. Among other things, that bill would allow for the sub-contracting of teachers from a for-profit agency.

So, we are looking at a literally golden opportunity for someone to make money by going through the motions of providing education through cyberspace. With some unspecified level of experience in improving academic achievement, a for-profit entity can be paid about as much per pupil as any regular school or district, with no requirements related to what, exactly, a quality digital learning experience should provide. And, if the teachers, too, can be a source of profit, so much the better!

Am I being too cynical?

It just seems obvious that a student who is not doing well in a traditional school with in-person attention cannot be expected to do better using unfamiliar technology, via software that may be as poorly designed as that I encountered, with only a quite possibly unqualified and over-committed instructor to help. It would take a year or two to evaluate results and close down operators who cannot “deliver a quality education program.” An “unlimited” number of lives may be blighted meanwhile, but plenty of money can be made during that time.

I must point out that NONE of the nations whose students perform the best on international exams reached that level by privatizing schools and de-professionalizing teachers. Yet a “free market” of schools and “loosening of regulations” that require teaching credentials are routinely touted as the cure for what ails American education. Now, Senator Colbeck’s bill would open the public’s purse to a completely unproven model: cyber schools. To my knowledge, only one such school in Michigan has a two-year track record available for analysis: Westwood Cyber High School in Wayne County. Its students achieved an ACT composite score of 15.6 (of a possible 36) in 2010 and 16.1 in 2011. While that trend might qualify as “improved academic achievement” as defined by SB 619, I hardly consider it a raging success worthy of unlimited replication on the taxpayers’ dime.

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