Online learning

More problems with education “reform”


Here’s another reason against being too eager to contract education “reform” fever – high school graduation rates.

In a new report released this week by a consortium of groups promoting the goal of graduating more high school students on time – that is, within four years – two darlings of the “reform” movement – charter and virtual schools – came up short.

Nationally, according to the “Building a Grad Nation” report, charter schools, which accounted for only 8 percent of all U.S. high schools, accounted for 30 percent of high schools that failed to graduate more than 67 percent of their students on time at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Virtual schools were even worse. Virtual schools accounted for only 1 percent of high schools in the country but accounted for 87 percent of the high schools with failing graduation rates. We all should be grateful that a legislative proposal last year to dump millions of tax dollars into virtual charters failed, following intense lobbying against it by TSTA and other public education advocates.

Some virtual operators would have made off like bandits, while thousands of Texas kids would have been victimized. The same operators, however, will be back before the Legislature next session, holding their hands out again, so the fight will continue.

Charters, virtual and alternative high schools combined accounted for 52 percent of the high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or less, although collectively they accounted for only 14 percent of the country’s high schools.

Alternative schools and some charters have high proportions of low-income, at-risk students. But so do traditional public schools. About 60 percent of Texas’ public school enrollment, for example, is low-income. But the legislative majority continues to under-fund them at a rate about $2,700 below the per-student national average.

Traditional public high schools accounted for 84 percent of all U.S. high schools and only 7 percent of high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or less in 2013-14.

Two school privatization bills up for hearing


School privateers will be out in force later this week when Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor trots out the first two pieces from his package of bad education bills. And what, you may ask, are school privateers? They are the folks, usually claiming to be education “reformers,” who measure reform by the amount of school tax dollars it can divert into their pockets, not how it can strengthen learning opportunities for Texas children.

The two bills scheduled for a committee hearing on Thursday – SB894 to plunge head-first into expanded online learning in Texas and SB6 to impose an A-F grading system on public schools – are cause for privatization salivation.

The online learning bill would remove important state restraints on the virtual learning industry even in the face of new research warning that accountability for instructional quality in online programs is lagging while private profits are expanding – with taxpayer dollars.

Under present law, school districts can refuse to pay for more than three electronic courses per year per student and can deny a student the opportunity to enroll in an online course if the district offers a substantially similar classroom course. As introduced, SB894 would repeal those safeguards and eliminate a $400 cap that current law sets for each individual online course.

The bill also would open up fulltime online programs to more students, including kids in kindergarten through second grade, and would end a moratorium on the establishment of new fulltime, online public schools. In effect, it’s a voucher bill for online schools.

Nationwide, according to the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, some 400 fulltime virtual schools enrolled more than 263,000 students in 2013-14. Private companies operated about 40 percent of those virtual schools and nearly 71 percent of all students. But 28 percent of the virtual schools weren’t rated for accountability or performance, and of the 285 schools that were rated, only 41 percent were considered academically acceptable.

It’s time for Texas to put the brakes – or, at least, apply more accountability standards – to virtual schools rather accelerate their creation.

The second objectionable bill, SB6, would apply letter grades, A-F, to individual schools under the state’s accountability system. This is an effort to transfer the blame for school failings to administrators and teachers who continue to deal with under-funding and budget cuts from the legislative majority. It also would more easily single out “failing” schools for takeover by corporate charters or other privatization efforts, rather than provide these neighborhood schools the resources they need for student success. The bill is part of the three-step privatization process – under-fund public schools, declare them a failure and them privatize them.

Virtual learning and A-F campus grading, by the way, were pioneered in Florida under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, where they remain part of the lore of Florida’s fictitious “education miracle.” In reality, the grading system is a mess, partly because the state keeps changing grading standards and partly, as the Florida Education Association points out, the system has been used to “shame and blame” students and teachers rather than as an effective diagnostic tool for teaching.





Computers alone don’t cut it in the classroom


The educational entrepreneurs who would have us believe that computers can replace teachers have some more egg on their faces. So, for that matter, do some administrators at San Jose State University in California, which recently ended a much-ballyhooed online program, but not before setting who knows how many students behind in their degree plans.

As the NEAToday Express story, linked below, points out, this is another dent in the myth that MOOCs – massive, open, online courses – are a potential educational miracle. Computer-assisted education certainly has its place, but let’s not be in too big a hurry to dismiss real, flesh and blood teachers.

Last year, San Jose State entered into an agreement with Udacity, a for-profit company, to offer three for-credit, online-only classes in developmental math, statistics and algebra. San Jose State students and others who took the course were charged $150 per student, with the university president predicting the high-tech arrangement would be a “game-changer.”

Not quite.

In none of the three online courses offered last spring did more than half of San Jose State students pass, and only 25 percent of the university students passed the online algebra class, compared to a long-term average passing rate of 65 percent among students who take the same algebra course face-to-face with professors. Most of the online students said they wanted more help with contest.

The “game-changer” partnership was suspended this summer.

San Jose also entered a second MOOC deal with MIT-Harvard’s edX in which students watched MIT engineering lectures online. But in this course, students also attended classes with a San Jose State professor, who answered questions and otherwise worked with them. Engineering students in this “hybrid” approach did better than engineering students in traditional classes.

Computers certainly can help teachers and students in the classroom. They are valuable educational tools that can open up new learning opportunities. But most students still need a teacher.