"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

From the Digital Divide to the Digital Diversion

A second offer showed up in my mailbox this morning for a new book by Terry Moe and John Chubb on the glories of cyber ed, which is viewed by the financiers and lawyers in charge today of education policy as the ultimate solution to education for the poor and working class. From cyber charter elementary to cyber college, a new educational caste system has been devised that will offer two very different types of educational experiences, one grounded in the sterile isolation and alienation of the flat screen, and the other based within the warm incandescent community of other middle class minds and bodies exchanging the breaths of privilege and mutual care.

The poor rural and urban students will avail themselves of the former, and the economically privileged will continue their well-heeled traditions with the best teachers, real campuses, and the best apparatus that money can buy. Meanwhile, the poor will have laptops and modems, we may presume, provided by Gates and Dell, and charged off at an exorbitant rate to the taxpayer as part of the new world of the cyber charter and the cyber college. Think of it: following graduation, the poor will even find minimum wage jobs online, so that they may live their entire lives without having to get dressed! Think of the cost savings.

The selling of this distinctly dystopian future is something else, again. It is wrapped in the threadbare reform rhetoric that no one believes anymore, insulting as it is to the intelligence of anyone able to read. Moe and Chubb have teamed up once more to promote the Oligarchs' solution of corporate-run testing factories, the online variety no less, as the way to achieve what the Finns have achieved by honoring the teaching profession, creating world-class standards, funding their school, nurturing their students, and getting rid of high stakes testing. Finland, for instance, does not use test scores to determine how much to pay teachers.

And even though the "reformers" have wasted the past 25 years with a test-til-you-puke strategy that continues to not work, that reality is lost on these fools, who have their eye on a prize that has nothing to do with student learning or quality schools--but on filling the pockets of the ed industry leeches looking to increase their share of tax money intended for education. In fact, the continuation of the test factory failures of the past 25 years holds open the door to the continuation of another generation of reforms dreamed up by the same ad agencies that sell you all the other modern day remedies you have come to count on not to work.

From the Wall Street Journal:
. . . . In response to "A Nation at Risk," Terry Moe and John Chubb in 1990 published "Politics, Markets and America's Schools," which identified special-interest groups -- mainly teachers unions -- as the culprits in preventing the reforms urged in the report. Now Messrs. Moe and Chubb have returned to the subject with "Liberating Learning," a more optimistic sequel. The authors believe there exists a magic bullet that is capable of shattering the unions' political power and, at last, bringing the sort of reform and excellence to U.S. K-12 education that might make U.S. students competitive with Finnish teenagers. The ammunition? Technology.

Mr. Moe is an academic researcher at the Hoover Institution; Mr. Chubb, an executive with Chris Whittle's for-profit education venture, Edison Learning. They think that technology -- particularly online education -- holds two potentially dramatic benefits. One is simply a general improvement in education as students from "anywhere -- poor inner cities, remote rural areas, even at home" gain access to high-caliber instruction. More important, the authors say, is technology's ability to destroy the political barriers that prevent education reform.

Despite much public rhetoric about the urgent need to improve American education, despite the investment of billions of dollars in schools, little progress has been achieved. Why? Messrs. Moe and Chubb blame the "politics of blocking" -- the thwarting of such simple reforms as paying teachers for performance. Many states prohibit even gathering data that link individual teachers to the test scores of their students.

Technology, the authors say, may enable the circumvention of political blocking. They make their point forcefully, with copious and surprising examples. In 1995, for instance, Midland, Pa., a declining steel town on the Ohio border, launched the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Today the online school serves 8,000 students throughout the state. And the classes aren't just digital correspondence courses -- there are textbooks and live educators, including "synchronous teachers," who work with students through instant messaging, voice and interactive whiteboards while the kids are engaged with their lessons online. Advisers are required to communicate with students' families at least once a week by email and once every two weeks by phone. . . .
There is one thing that may get in the way of this brave new cyber world of education for the disenfranchised, and, as always, it has to do with the greedy over-reaching that has characterized this generation of corporate bottom-feeders. Here is the latest from Pennsylvania, where the lawyers of the Agora Cyber Charter School are using up the money they have taken from the taxpayers to file numerous lawsuits to block the State from bringing a halt to their corrupt gravy train. From the Inquirer:

With the state poised to pull the plug over alleged mismanagement, an online charter school based in Devon is fighting back in not just one court, but three.

One week after the Pennsylvania Department of Education began the process of revoking its operating charter, the Agora Cyber Charter School has filed lawsuits in federal, state, and county courts challenging the action and seeking the return of public money the state had diverted from Agora into an escrow account.

The litigation - filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, and Chester County Court of Common Pleas - is the latest salvo in a dispute over the school's management contract with a company owned by Agora founder Dorothy June Brown.

Agora, which opened in 2005, enrolls 4,400 students statewide who receive online instruction at home.

The Education Department, which oversees the 11 cyber charters in Pennsylvania, alleges that Agora's board of trustees violated the operating charter by contracting out management services. To make matters worse, state officials say, the company, Cynwyd Group L.L.C., is controlled by Brown.

Cynwyd was to be paid $2.8 million from Agora's $41 million budget this academic year - although, according to the Education Department, most of the management work was performed by another company, K-12 Pennsylvania L.L.C.

On June 11, the state told Agora's board to cancel the Cynwyd contract and to resign in 10 days. When the board did neither, charter-revocation proceedings were begun and a two-day hearing in Harrisburg was scheduled for next month.

The Education Department already had started to divert Agora's local, state, and federal funds into an escrow account, to prevent money from flowing to Cynwyd.

In court documents filed this week, Agora's board contends that education officials had known about the Cynwyd contract since 2006 but raised no objections until April 29.

Joel L. Frank, an Agora attorney, is asking the courts to halt the revocation proceedings and to return the money, which he contends was withheld in violation of state law.

"We will review the complaints and respond in a timely manner," Leah Harris, an Education Department spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail yesterday.

School districts, she added, have been asked "to place their tuition payments to Agora into an escrow account from which the costs of the students' education will continue to be paid. All federal funds will be paid to Agora. There is no intention on the part of [the department] to withhold federal dollars from Agora."

Despite the revocation proceedings, state officials have said Agora is expected to operate in 2009-10.

Also on Monday, Agora's board sued K-12 in Chester County Court. Although the state maintains the escrow fund, the trustees contend that K-12 has had some access to the money in order to pay bills, and they are seeking an accounting.

Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the attorney who represents K-12, said that under the escrow procedures, the state must preapprove all Agora bills paid by K-12. Any expenditures, he said, "have been for the educational needs of the students."

K-12 Pennsylvania is a subsidiary of K12 Inc., a for-profit education company in Herndon, Va.

The cyber school's finances also are under scrutiny by the Philadelphia School District inspector general and by federal investigators as part of a general criminal probe of local charter operations.


  1. Free2Teach12:16 PM

    These cyber schools will come in handy to serve the burgeoning homeless population of children as Arne Duncan continues to "educate our way to a better economy" - just give all the kids living in rat infested motels and shelters a laptop - that should close the achievement gap - meanwhile Duncan and his buddies at the BRT can ride the gravy train to a better economy through "education reform" -

    From the front page of today's NYT:

    Summertime Surge in Homeless Families
    By Sewell Chan
    Many New Yorkers view summer as a time for vacations, camp and lazy days at the beach. But city officials have been preparing for quite a different summer ritual: the swelling of the population of homeless families.

    They call it the summer surge, and say that this year could be the worst yet.

    Because the homeless population this spring was up more than 20 percent from last spring, possibly because of higher unemployment, officials are girding for an all-time high in the number of families in shelters at once, expecting close to 10,000. Already, the number has reached 9,420.

    Government & Politics

    Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has imposed an immediate city hiring freeze, citing “gridlock in the State Senate” that has held up votes on budget measures. [NYT] (Also see City Room.)

    One proposal, which would solve the succession puzzle and break the Senate deadlock, would be for Gov. David A. Paterson to appoint a lieutenant governor. [NYT] (Also see The Daily News.)

    Representative Peter T. King, a Republican from Long Island, condemned Michael Jackson this week as a “lowlife” and “child molester” who does not deserve the public adulation he has received since his death last month. [NYT] (Also see The New York Post.)

    Clyde Haberman’s NYC: In the year 2014, a new mental disorder has been discovered, but the old power struggle among state politicians continues. [NYT]

    The chief contracting officer of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection has forfeited $6,290 worth of annual leave because she used agency personnel to pump water from her basement when her home flooded. [New York Post]

    Brooklyn’s scandal-plagued court system gets a new black eye in a scathing audit that found the borough’s public administrator’s office riddled with “mismanagement and laziness.” The city comptroller’s office uncovered what it described as shoddy recordkeeping, suspicious real estate deals and auctions run by a shadowy company that vanished when auditors started asking questions. [Daily News]

  2. I have to continue to point out that Chubb's and Moe's philosophy, as set out in their "Politics and Markets..." book, was given a full test a few years ago, when for-profit Edison Schools (the failed precursor to Edison Learning) was given schools all over the country to manage.

    Despite the fervent support of the moneyed and powerful -- and gushing press from the skepticism-impaired media -- it didn't work. As with other "it's a miracle!" school reforms, some schools did well; many did poorly; the rest were in between -- just like regular old not-for-profit educator-run schools. Meanwhile, Edison's client school districts shared the same complaints: Edison's schools cost more than regular schools, dumped the more-challenging-to-educate students and achieved far less successfully than promised.

    Teachers' unions had nothing to do with this failure, as the schools were (the few remaining still are) nonunion.

    So these guys set out their vision, got a full chance to test it, and found out that it was a bust. Why are we listening to them at all with this new idea? You'd think they'd have the grace to go try to do something productive. How arrogant to just come up with a new idea and start touting THAT as the miracle solution, now that the last one flopped.

  3. Although I applaud your blog and many of your positions, I see this argument as a losing proposition. We in public education have nobody to blame but ourselves when shoddy and unethical online schools come into play because we've refused to adapt to our wired clientele. We are creating the demand for them by the lack of urgency we have about our own integration of the internet, online resources and social networking into our current system.
    The recent story about the eleven-year-old boy that went online and learned how to code an iPhone application is an illustration of what elementary age kids can do without guidance from teachers.(www.inc.com/news/articles/2009/07/iphone-app.html)
    The days of teachers standing up in front of the room controlling and dispensing information are over, including the worksheet /paper and pencil responses they are used to giving out following their lesson. The fact is, kids can learn things all by themselves if we can guide them to the right places and provide them with the right tools. We just have too many teachers who don't want to give up their old methods and more importantly, ultimate control over how and what kids learn.
    As an example,I offer the following:
    at my inner-city school, we gave our NCLB advanced/proficient 6th graders access to their online social-studies textbook (Holt series) and had them generate a written report on one of the ancient cultures in the text.They then summarized their written report into a PowerPoint presentation....all without receiving a minute of teacher lecture. After that we had conversations with them about what they had learned and they could articulate very well the major concepts and supporting details with little difficulty.
    Public education needs to embrace the fact kids learn differently than in the past and get with it by learning how to integrate technology into their instruction. We are behind as a profession and will continue to be until we become tech literate from superintendents to principals(who seldom receive ANY instructional technology training)to the classroom teacher. Otherwise we'll be crying in our beer about the evil private sector that stole our profession away.

  4. free2teach10:21 PM


    I don't think anyone on this blog is critical of the use of technology as an educational tool or the power of technology in improving education if it is used appropriately. However, the danger is the push by people like Jeb Bush and business leaders, especially of technology companies, who believe that simply providing computers and technology to children will do anything to enhance or improve education. If there is anything teachers and administrators of public schools can blame themselves for is not reframing the entire discourse and debate about school reform in terms of what goes on outside the classroom - poverty, lack of healthcare, disrespect in general for teachers and the open assault on public schools in favor of privatizing all aspects of education. And let's not forget the all important tests that have become the cornerstone of education for children not lucky enough to attend a private school where teachers are still free to teach.

    I don't think the profession is blind to technology, I think the profession is blind to the propaganda and destructive agenda of those who stand to make a great deal of money by pushing for the use of technology and tests when millions of children are homeless, hungry, have no health or dental care and are suffering from environmental toxins. It's time for teachers to start reframing the debate and standing up to people like Arne Duncan, Congress and this administration that has rubber stamped the same old failed policies of the Bush year. They conveniently scapegoat the schools and teachers for the country's economic problems - Duncan runs around like Henny Penny shouting "education for a better economy" - how about trying a new slogan - "a better economy for education" - however, that won't work because it would put the blame where it really belongs - with those who are in power and who have created this mess but continue to profit handsomely by selling meaningless, clever slogans that shift the focus to education - it's an easy target because teachers are so beaten down, scared and demoralized from the policies of the past few decades -- plus they petrified of losing their jobs and their health benefits. So they submit to these bullies and try to do the best they can.
    The latest remedy for improving education getting attention this past week is technology,a few weeks ago it was higher standards, national standards, merit pay for teachers - the list goes on and on. It's the reform dejour -- but it's a recipe for disaster.

    While you warn us that we may find ourselves crying in our beer if we don't jump on the technology bandwagon, you may not have noticed, but the the evil private sector has already stolen the profession away. Now it's time to put down the beer and work like hell to get it back.

    Perhaps a PowerPoint presentation will do the trick.

  5. It is odd - with so much praise for the online system - which works for some, not nearly all - that the Ohio State Government is going in the completely opposite direction and views Online schools as the 'soft option' when it comes to educational cuts. They want to actively return children to brick and mortar schools or into the hands of poorly educated parents 'home schooling' their children and giving them unaccredited high school diplomas before sending them out to work.

    You say teachers should embrace technology - to be honest - in the UK and Europe and I am sure in the US - teachers don't embrace it and so golden educational opportunities are passing us by.