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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Diane Ravitch Documents the Danger of "E-land"

In Reign of Error, Diane Ravitch writes, “Some - a small but important number – believe they are acting rationally by treating the public education sector as an investment opportunity.”

Who can argue with that conclusion?

Ravitch is tough on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his chief of staff, Joanne Weiss. Ravitch did not put words in Weiss’s mouth, however, when the director of the Race to the Top said it was designed to create new education markets. It was Weiss, not Ravitch, who said that the RttT called for common standards so that entrepreneurs “will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” In other words, it paved the way for the $16 billion Common Core market. Moreover, it was the Duncan administration which designed the RttT so that an estimated 35% of a state’s grant would go directly to consultants.

In other words, reformers who are outraged by the term “corporate reform” protest too much. Yes, we have always had a mixed system with a place for non-profit and for-profit education providers. But, the “pot of gold” that attracted “privatizers” to public education was no accident. NCLB sweetened the pot for the competitive sector. The law's impossible growth targets, like 100% proficiency by 2014, were bound to increase charges that schools are irremediably broken and help create a “burgeoning market for new products and technologies.” And, the Obama administration put market-driven policies on steroids.

The Democratic President thus helped set the stage for perhaps the most troubling chapter of Reign of Error, “Trouble in E-land.” A wide range of stakeholders have seen the damage that the testing mania has done, and they are thus turning against it. This chapter documents a lower-profile effort to enrich special interests. It recounts travesties such as Pennsylvania paying $22,000 a year for services when a local district would charge $1,500. It documents Colorado’s investment in $100 million a year on online schools as it cuts $200 to $270 million from brick-and-mortar schools.

Perhaps the worst travesty was hidden in “10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.” This joint statement was issued by Jeb Bush and Bob Wise, and funded by the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations, as well as online providers. It recommended funding all education providers equally so, for instance, a digital provider would be paid $6000 per student for online services that merit only a portion of that sum.

Obviously, there is a place for profit-making and for online learning. I wonder, however, if otherwise liberal reformers see a place for the notorious, conservative ALEC lobbying organization. Would they deny that ALEC is a force for privatization or a embrace it as a force for the good of public school children?

I have expressed qualms about some of Ravitch’s passages that analyze what reformers say, and what they actually mean. On the other hand, this parsing of the language of reform is absolutely essential. Nowhere is the difference between some reformers’ words and what they actually mean more important than in the discussion of the spin that accompanies online learning. “When they speak of ‘personalized instruction,’” Ravitch explains, “they mean putting children in front of computer screens.”

“Trouble in E-Land” then summarizes journalism and scholarly research into scandalous virtual schools. It also cites a study by the conservative, pro-charter CREDO which found that 100% of cyber-charters performed significantly worse than traditional public schools in reading and math.

Ravitch concludes that “online technology surely holds immense potential to enliven the classroom.” But, she makes an ironclad case that such potential will be undermined by dubious cyber-charters. How can we invest in virtual schooling without checks and balances against its abuse? Since the primary purpose school reform is helping children, would it not make sense to draft regulations so digital technology is used to improve student performance, not increase profits for adult interests? Putting student interests over adult interests, isn't that something that reformers claim to embrace?

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