Archives for category: Online learning

If data and research matter, the worst reform in U.S. education is the virtual charter school.

The League of Women Voters–one of the few national organizations with integrity about education issues (I.e. has not been bought by the Gates Foundation) issued a report about these floundering “schools,” that typically have low test scores, high dropout rates, and low graduation rates. Only a devotee of the Jeb Bush reform school would want to invite these ineffectual schools into their state. Poor New Mexico. Its acting state commissioner Hannah Skandera used to work for the Jebster himself, so whatever Florida has done to bring in for-profit hucksters must be brought to New Mexico, of course.

So New Mexico has a K12 virtual charter (listed on the New York Stock Exchange, founded by the Milken brothers), and a Connections Academy, owned by the much unloved Pearson.

Here is the study conducted by the New Mexico League of Women Voters.

Here is an article by Bonnie Burn in the Las Cruces Sun-News explaining why the League of Women Voters opposes for-profit schools. Actually, she is wrong on one point. There is a growing body of research that shows the ineffectiveness of virtual charters. However, they are highly profitable.

Will the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak out against for-profit virtual charters? Will elephants fly?

This prize-winning story by investigative reporter Colin Woodard follows the money trail in Maine, as Governor Paul LePage seeks to make a name for himself in the world of digital learning. It was originally published two years ago, but remains relevant. Woodard dug through more than 1,000 documents that he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and his story won the George Polk award.

Starbucks received wonderful publicity for its offer to pay the tuition of thousands of workers who took online courses at Arizona State University.

But there is a catch.

“Any Starbucks employee who works at least 20 hours per week will soon be able to complete his/her junior and senior years of college at Arizona State University (ASU) Online, thanks to a deal between the coffeehouse colossus and the institute of higher learning. But not everyone thinks that the new plan is such a great deal for Starbucks employees.

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which replaces an earlier tuition assistance program in the company’s benefits package, was officially unveiled at a public forum in New York’s Times Center. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put in an appearance at the forum during which he told Starbucks employees, “I urge you to take advantage of this.”

A joint statement from Starbucks and ASU hailed the new tuition reimbursement plan as “a powerful, first-of-its-kind program designed to unleash [a] lifetime opportunity for thousands of eligible part-time and full-time U.S. partners (employees).” Under the new plan, employees who complete their freshman and sophomore years at ASU Online would receive a major discount, and the remaining two years would be totally free.

Sounds great, right? Not according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who said she found it “incredibly problematic” that Starbucks has decided to limit its tuition assistance to a single online university.

““ASU Online is a profit venture,” said Goldrick-Rab. “And basically, these two businesses have gotten together and created a monopoly on college ventures for Starbucks employees.”

“Although ASU is a public university, its online wing is definitely a revenue-generating enterprise, helping the university manage its finances in an era of declining state aid. Online courses are taught by ASU professors, but much of the technical and administrative work that goes into managing ASU Online has been handed over to a private company, Pearson.

“In addition to limiting student choices, Goldrick-Rab said she believes it will leave them with a shoddier education. Recent research has suggested that online-only classes may leave low-income students at a disadvantage. Those are precisely the people, said Goldrick-Rab, who are mostly likely to enroll in ASU Online through the Starbucks program.

“These studies indicate that online education not only doesn’t work well for them, but can also propel them backwards,” she said. Students would also be expected to become full-time students, while still working an average 20 hours per week at Starbucks.”

And that is not all. The New York Times reports: that “students could have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket, and wait months or years before being reimbursed.”

“That feature of the program was not mentioned in the Starbucks news release announcing the program, or on its publicly accessible web page about the program. But as word of it leaked out, educators and education experts took to the Internet to say that the benefit was less than it seemed, and might even frighten away some potential users.

“Given the upfront cost, it pushes a lot of risk onto the student,” Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, wrote in a blog post dissecting the program.”

Eduardo Porter, a business columnist for the New York Times, writes enthusiastically about a new and inexpensive way to “skip college.”

He writes:

“This week, AT&T and Udacity, the online education company founded by the Stanford professor and former Google engineering whiz Sebastian Thrun, announced something meant to be very small: the “NanoDegree.”

“At first blush, it doesn’t appear like much. For $200 a month, it is intended to teach anyone with a mastery of high school math the kind of basic programming skills needed to qualify for an entry-level position at AT&T as a data analyst, iOS applications designer or the like.

“Yet this most basic of efforts may offer more than simply adding an online twist to vocational training. It may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream.”

“Intriguingly, it suggests that the best route to democratizing higher education may require taking it out of college.

“We are trying to widen the pipeline,” said Charlene Lake, an AT&T spokeswoman. “This is designed by business for the specific skills that are needed in business.”

“Mr. Thrun sounded more ambitious about the ultimate goal: “It is like a university,” he told me, “built by industry.”

Correct me if I am wrong, but this sounds very much like vocational training, not college.

Porter rightly says that college is out of reach for many young people, and he is right. One of the reasons it is out of reach is that many states are shifting the financial burden from the public to the student. That’s short-sighted. Surely higher education should be available to many more young people, and the way to make it more affordable is to reduce the cost by government subsidies.

Job training is not enough. The doors to higher education should be open to all who have the will and the ability to pursue it, without regard to their income.

Once upon a time, community colleges were free. Once upon a time, states subsidized public higher education to keep costs low.

Here is a book that argues that public higher education should be free. What a dream. Our society invests our treasure elsewhere.

Keystone State Education Coalition
Pennsylvania Education Policy Roundup for June 3, 2014:

In God We Trust? How about a bill that would require charter and cyber schools to post their PA School Performance Profile scores prominently in any advertising paid for with public tax dollars?

Blogger Rant:

At a recent school board meeting I voted against authorizing a payment to Agora Cyber Charter School. Why? During the NCLB regime, Agora never once made AYP; this year their PA School Performance Profile Score was 48.3 (scale of 100). In my district, our Middle School score was 94; our High School score was 96.4. Agora is run by K12, Inc., a for-profit company founded by convicted bond felon Michael Milken. K12 paid it’s CEO $13 million from 2009 through 2013 and spent our tax dollars on over 19,000 local TV commercials. I do not believe Agora should receive one cent of my neighbors’ tax dollars.

Instead of posting “In God We Trust”, how about a bill that would require charter and cyber schools to post their PA School Performance Profile scores prominently in any advertising paid for with public tax dollars?

An article in the Akron Beacon Journal shows how virtual charters design advertising campaigns to appeal to students who are unhappy and feel bullied at school

“With profits on the line, private charter school companies are advertising on television, radio, billboards, handbills and even automated telephone messages to entice students away from public schools.

“And with words such as free, flexible, one-on-one and find your future — and taking opportunities to play on fear — the privately run, publicly funded schools are being quite successful.

“Enrollment in Ohio charter schools now stands at more than 120,000 in nearly 400 schools, with seven more schools expected to open next year. These quasi-public schools enroll less than 7 percent of Ohio’s students and receive $912 million in state tax dollars, about 11 percent of all state funds set aside for primary and secondary education.”

Some charters spend as much as $400 per student on advertising. Some public schools advertise to lure students back. All the money spent on advertising is taxpayer dollars that should be spent in classrooms.

Some of the ads feature students who talk about how they changed their life by enrolling in an online school, free from bullying. But the reporters interviewed a student who was not happy with her experience:

“Gretchen Carle, 19, a former student at Howland High School near Warren, also went to ECOT to escape bullying. Her experience with the online school, however, was different, she said in an interview.

“There wasn’t a lot of interaction with the teachers like they said there would be,” Carle said. “You were on your own with everything. It was very hard for me until I got a tutor.”

“Carle’s parents, not the school, paid for the private tutor. She never graduated and declined to talk about what she is doing currently.

“A video, “I Choose Life Skills,” posted in October, features a testimonial by a student identified as Tanya. In it, she says she can work at her own pace, with a highly qualified teacher or, if she chooses, from home “in my comfy PJs.”

“At that point, she is shown relaxing in a recliner, with a computer on her lap, while eating grapes. She also promotes the flexible class schedule that allows her to keep an outside job to take care of her family while earning a diploma.
The 30-second advertisement ends with the student saying, “I choose free tuition. I choose to take control of my life. I choose Life Skills high school. What do you choose?”

Back in 2011, the Florida legislature decreed that every student must pass an online course as a graduation requirement. Was this decision based on research about the value of online learning? No. It was justified as a means of readying all students for an online workplace but there is as yet no solid evidence that students learn better online. Perhaps it was sheer coincidence that the legislature’s mandate coincided with former Governor Jeb Bush’s determination that digital learning was the wave of the future; Jeb launched a national campaign, well funded by the technology industry, to promote digital learning, including a high school graduation requirement to take at least one or two courses online or no diploma. Six states have since adopted Jeb’s propsal and require students to take at least one course online as a graduation requirement. That sold a lot of new hardware and software but there is still no evidence of its necessity or value.

The Orlando Sentinel found that many seniors are familiar with digital technology but they have not met their graduation requirement:

“More than 11,000 Central Florida 11th-graders — about 43 percent of the region’s juniors — have not yet passed an online course, even though they must do that to earn a diploma next year. The class of 2015 is the first to fall under the online-learning requirements the state adopted four years ago.

“Spencer Thompson, 16, met the requirement at his parents’ insistence, but he isn’t surprised many classmates have not.

“I think it’s forcing a lot of kids to do something they don’t want to do,” said the junior at Hagerty High School in Seminole County.

“Some teenagers think they learn better with an in-person teacher, Spencer said, and some have found it a hassle to fit an online course into their schedule. Online courses, he added, are a useful option — he’s taking a virtual math class next year — but shouldn’t be required.”

Now districts are scrambling to find ways to help students meet the requirement for virtual coursework. “Orange, Seminole and Volusia schools next school year will enroll any 12th-grader who hasn’t taken an online class in new “blended learning” economics or government courses.

“These courses will be taught during the school day, with a teacher at the helm, but at least 50 percent of their lessons — enough to meet the state’s requirement — will be delivered via computer. Because economics and government both are required for graduation and typically taken senior year, administrators have a captive audience and a way to make sure students meet the online rule.”

Some students don’t have a computer or Internet access at home. Some prefer face-to-face interaction with a teacher. For a time, students took their drivers education courses online, but “the Legislature later decided that would not count for the graduation rule.

“This year, lawmakers reversed themselves, so if Gov. Rick Scott signs the latest bill, starting in July students can again use an online driver’s education class to help earn their diploma.”

Really, it shouldn’t matter what course the student takes as long as the purpose of the mandate is filled: to divert more public money to private vendors.

In Maine, Jeb Bush’s “Digital Learning Now” campaign stalled when a local reporter wrote an award-winning story about the money trail connecting Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence, the tech vendors, and Maine politicians.

A reader offers this perspicacious view of Pennsylvania’s cybercharter industry. There are 16 of them in the state. The founders of two of the major cybercharters are currently under indictment for siphoning millions of dollars of public funds:

The reader writes:

“Running a cyber-charter in PA is as good as printing money. No oversight and a system that completely ignores the actual costs of the system. If the Commonwealth of PA went shopping for used cars the same way, it would walk onto the lot and tell the salesman, “Here’s twenty grand. Pick out any car for me that you want, and keep the change.”

Temple University law professor Susan deJarnett studied Pennsylvania’s 16 Cybercharters and found that they make huge profits while providing few services.

“Parsing the tax documents for the 12 cyber charters for which information was available, she found that cyber charters carry large surpluses and spend what she considered a disproportionate amount of Pennsylvania tax dollars on advertising, travel expenses and contracts with outside management and service providers.”

Fewer teachers. No custodians. No heating bills. No savings.

The money for the Cybercharters comes out of each district’s budget, depending on its per pupil expenditure:

“If a regular-education student from Lower Merion school district attended a cyber-charter in 2011-2012, Lower Merion (which then had a per-pupil expenditure of $22,140.70) sent the cyber charter about $17,000.

“If a regular-education student from the Philadelphia school district attended the same cyber-charter, Philadelphia (which then had a per-pupil expenditure of $12,351.74) sent the cyber charter about $8,500.

“Same cyber school. Same cyber-education. Outrageously different price tag.”

An obvious incentive to poach students from rich districts.

Two of Pennsylvania’s best known charter founders are under indictment. With so many millions in play and no supervision or regulation, bad things can happen.

When I started public elementary school in Houston, we learned to write with pens that were dipped in an inkwell. I think it was called a quill pen. This was not easy for me because almost every desk had a wooden arm for right-handed students, and I am left handed. I had to contort myself to dip my pen and write on a desk meant for right-handed students.

Then about the time I was in second grade, we got ball point pens, which was a huge technological step forward. However, they smudged something awful. As I wrote, in my cramped left-handed way, the ink smeared my fingers and my left hand. I came home ink-stained every day.

When ball points were eventually improved so that the ink did not smudge, it was wonderful for us lefties.

But always there was the trusty pencil. We could all count on our #2 pencil, so long as there was a nearby pencil sharpener, or a pocket knife to bring back the point.

This writer joins me in distrusting the exclusive reliance on online testing. I could give many reasons why it is a terrible idea, not only including cost, but emphasizing that it shifts control to outside authority. Someone decides what knowledge is of most worth. It is not teachers or scholars. Chances are it is a committee at Pearson.

A great scholar once said to me: “Let me write a nation’s tests, and I care not who writes its songs.”

Here is a reader, in praise of the pencil:

“It becomes a test to take the test. Where are the content advocates now? Are we really ready to replace the technology of the pencil. Computers will come and go, breakdown, become obsolete. This has never happened to the pencil, a very reliable technology.
Pencils will help our children be career and college ready at less cost. Don’t need to hire technicians; and they are so abundant and available, that they can be found on the floor of any classroom at the end of the day.”

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