PLAYBACK: Profits Ahead of Quality in Online Charters?
12.16.11 | Virtual schools face criticism on funding, quality and oversight; HASTAC’S Cathy Davidson offers advice to parents and students on how to make better decisions about what constitutes effective online learning; and much more, all in this week’s PLAYBACK…
Online Schools Score Better on Wall Street Than in Class: In an investigative piece in The New York Times this week, Stephanie Saul takes on the issue of for-profit online charter schools. Through interviews and data analysis, the Times examines K12 Inc., one of the largest companies running virtual charter schools where students login from home.
Saul finds “serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed. Instead, a portrait emerges of a company that tries to squeeze profits from public school dollars by raising enrollment, increasing teacher workload and lowering standards.” (K12 Inc. has since issued this response.)
Hopefully this well-researched piece will put the lid on arguments by school-choice advocates that corporate efficiencies coupled with technology can offer a better education than fully funded public schools staffed by well-trained and supported educators. It also should squash illusions by ed-tech advocates that these companies are interested in exploring the potential of cutting-edge technology for the noble purpose of teaching and learning.
Instead, the Times paints a portrait of a corrupt business model that puts profits above children’s education using public dollars: Poorly paid teachers are expected to “teach” as many as 270 students at a time; deceptive lobbying and marketing efforts take advantage of low-income parents; and kids are often left alone to navigate subpar online curriculum without adult supervision. In addition, the investigation finds that cyber charter school students perform significantly lower on state assessments than students in regular schools.
Don’t take my word for it. The full story is a must read.
Context Matters: Cathy Davidson’s thoughtful response to the NYT story helps bring this discussion about virtual classrooms back to some of the core ideas about online learning we’ve discussed here on Spotlight—like the fact that kids learn best when their learning is self-directed (as it most often is when they pursue their own interests online), and that context of learning with new media matters very much.
Davidson reminds us that the “who, what, where, why,” of learning matters most, and that gifted educators who are augmenting their “classroom lessons with online assignments or, conversely, who amplify all the kinds of learning their students accomplish on line with real-time, face-to-face dialogue and interaction about the importance, meaning, and implications of digital learning” will make a real difference.
A variation of Davidson’s post was published by The Washington Post. In that version, she lists seven key questions designed to help parents and students make better decisions about “if, when, and in what situations we can really learn effectively online.”
Not all online learning is the same. Neither is all face-to-face learning. At this confusing moment in the history of education, we have to be willing to look critically at the possibilities, to sort out the clichés and the hyperbole, and make pragmatic decisions about what works and does not work for us and for our children.
For more discussion, read Barbara’s Q&A with Davidson about her new book, “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.”
Research Needed: Blogging at Education Week, Katie Ash notes that the NYT story is the latest in a growing body of work criticizing “cyber charters.” We covered this story at The Nation last week; Mother Jones and The Washington Post also recently published critical stories. Ash calls for more research on virtual schools and online learning:
There is still little rigorous, large-scale research on the effectiveness of K12 online learning. Some often cite the U.S. Department of Education’s meta-analysis of online learning as evidence that online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning, but they usual fail to mention that the study used zero data from K-12 programs. In fact, the meta-analysis found no K-12 research met the criteria to be analyzed and warned against applying findings from the overall analysis to K-12:
‘An unexpected finding of the literature search, however, was the small number of published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K-12 students. Because the search encompassed the research literature not only on K-12 education but also on career technology, medical and higher education, as well as corporate and military training, it yielded enough studies with older learners to justify a quantitative meta-analysis. Thus, analytic findings with implications for K-12 learning are reported here, but caution is required in generalizing to the K-12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).’
Advocates Respond: Education Week also had an interesting piece last week that covered how executives and other virtual education advocates are responding to this wave of criticism by working to improve student achievement and clearing up what they see as misconceptions.
Education Week’s Ian Quillen also calls for more research, but he reports that a blended learning model that “retains in-person instructors but reshapes the teacher’s job description with technology integration” is receiving new support from business and philanthropy groups, including Microsoft and the Gates Foundation, including for initiatives for kids who are “at-risk” academically.
“The hypothesis is that population needs the brick-and-mortar setting and all-around wrap-around support that comes with that setting to succeed,” said Elina Alayeva, a program officer for the Gate’s Foundation’s Next Generation Learning Challenges.
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