Friday, October 30, 2009

Reflections on virtual schools

I recently listened to our superintendent, Larry Glaze, give a presentation on the growing phenomenon of on-line or virtual charter schools in Oregon. The stakes are as public funds are being syphoned off from brick and mortar schools to fund this new "alternative" education. Last week I drafted a rather undeveloped and off the cuff response to what I heard, and I sent it to Mr. Glaze who shared it with a committee in Salem charged with examing current law and policies on the matter. What follows is the text of that letter, somewhat revised. This topic deserves more thought which I intend to give to it as time goes on.

Reflections on Virtual Schools

What is behind the upsurge in the virtual school phenomenon? What attracts people to this particular alternative, and can traditional schools compete head on with the claims being made on behalf of online schools? Whether these strengths are real or whether they are merely perceptions is to some degree a moot point. The perceptions exist. Enrollment in virtual schools is rising. Perhaps that trend will flatten out, in which case, those of us working in and for traditonal schools might simply be patient in the hope that perceptions will change and that kids will come back to us as the halo effect wears off of the virtual school honeymoon. But perhaps we should try harder to make the case that we can do better than virtual schools even in the very areas where they claim to have the edge.

As I see it, virtual school proponents’ claims can be grouped into two categories. The first has to do with school environment and the second with flexibility.

If you visit websites devoted to discussing the pros and cons of online schools it is impossible to ignore testimonials from students and parents who say that in a virtual school they don’t get bullied or beaten up or harassed. Not all the concerns about environment are that dramatic but they tend to cohere around the idea that the public school environment (at least in their community) is problematic or somehow unsatisfactory. These are issues that schools are aware of (sometimes painfully so) and in our case, for example, they are the focus of efforts of improvement. Environment is something we can improve, but it is also a highly subjective factor and one that is subject to myriad variables. Some people will never feel comfortable in a school setting no matter what it is. School, especially high school, is an intrinsically difficult and problematic place. There is no environment that can guarantee people they will not have bad luck or unfortunate experiences.

Being public institutions, our schools are highly regulated and rule-bound places. Despite efforts to provide electives and to accommodate a very heterogeneous student population, it is perhaps fair to characterize schools as compassionate but not very flexible and certainly not nimble organizations. These rules and regulations are for the most part animated by legitimate concerns; nevertheless, good intentions are often undermined by what some call the law of unintended consequences. Students/parents who want to accelerate through material and course sequences and basically break ranks with their age group are often presented with institutional barriers that bespeak a strong institutional preference to keep kids together in those age groupings.

There are many institutional values which are themselves rooted in the regulatory apparatus overseeing public schools and which severely curtail flexibility in our schools. But foremost among these, in my mind, is the anachronistic Carnegie Unit, more commonly referred to these days as the “credit hour”. The Carnegie unit posits a simple equation 120 seat hours = one credit. While it has become somewhat trendy to talk about replacing seat time with proficiency-based credits, it is very hard to see any concrete incentives or initiatives actually taking us in that direction.

That is, of course, unless of course you are running a virtual school. One of the interesting and perhaps unintended consequences of the virtual school trend may be to once and for all undermine the legitimacy of seat time and to replace it with some thing more clearly tied to learning and performance. As far as I can tell, virtual schools sidestep the seat time issue. Instead they promise to deliver results on assessments. Leaving aside for the time being the enormous credibility problem that virtual schools face on the subject of protecting against fraud, the credit for proficiency approach is a fundamental paradigm shift and one that deserves strong consideration.

My impression is that virtual schools have scored a major coup by effectively getting an exemption from the Carnegie Unit. It's hard to see, however, how they have earned this dispensation. The dirty little secret of on-line education, is that there is no satisfactory way to know for sure whose fingers are tapping on the keyboard when work is submitted online. I am not here to claim widespread fraud; rather, I am alarmed by the systemic vulnerability to said fraud. As a classroom teacher, I have some familiarity with some of the ways in which students sometimes attempt to cut corners and how sometimes their parents collaborate in the effort, and while I’d be lying if I said that cheating never occurs in my room, I can guarantee that major assessments both written and oral are conducted under my direct supervision. The virtual model cannot claim anything remotely close to this level of certainty. Yet the virtual school is exempt from the requirements of seat time while the brick and mortar school is not. Exactly why this is so is a question conspicuously unanswered by officials and legislators. A cynic might be tempted to infer that money has somehow tainted the process by which we ensure that public funds are spent wisely on public education. There are legistlative and policy decisions earmarking enormous quantities of public funds for the current educational marketplace, and these public funds seem destined to make some tidy private profits.

But dispensations available to virtual schools ought to be granted to the traditional schools as well. Public schools might benefit enormously from being released from the Carnegie Unit. It might shake up the ways in which we group and pace kids, not to mention our approaches to curriculum and instruction. It might unleash the kind of innovation and creativity that would allow young people to move through course materials at a rate appropriate to their abilities and, more importantly, consistent with their dreams and aspirations. Ultimately it is their dreams and aspirations that we should be attempting to facilitate, not our calcified notions about what is best for them.

I have sampled a significant portion of the virtual school English curriculum out there. It is fine as far as it goes. There is rigor; there is substance, but a meaningful context for that content is largely absent as is any reliable means of developing such a context. There is also an eerie and almost closeted quality to the online experience. It resembles nothing so much as reading a textbook and answering the questions at the end of every chapter. It’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not for the nonreader or for the person who thrives on nuanced, tactile, interpersonal communications. It’s not for children who don’t have solid adult oversight and support. It’s not for people who cannot find and plug into a community of learners that will support and nourish the student’s efforts. It seems likely that some people signing up kids in virtual schools are going to discover this truth the hard way.

One reads testimonials from proponents about online teachers who respond promptly and deftly to their students questions via email and sometimes the telephone. While I don't doubt that these testimonials are sincere, I am highly skeptical of email as a pedagogical tool. I have spent too much time in the classroom to feel comfortable with the notion that all a teacher needs to know about a child’s needs are what that child can verbalize or write down himself. A philosopher once said that we know more than we can tell. Part of a teacher's job is to listen between the lines, to see the nonverbal cues, and to nurture an environment rich in communicative potential. In short, the nuances of communication are hard to discover when your communications universe is defined for the most part by email.

One argument often made in defense of traditional schools is that they serve to socialize children. I think there is some truth to this, but I am not inclined to make grand claims in this area for the simple reason that the kind of socialization we witness in schools is frankly very odd and even unnatural. Segregating kids strictly by age for the first ten years of their school lives is a curious way to socialize them. At the middle and high school levels, too many young people are warehoused together and essentially prevented from interacting with the adult community in any meaningful way. As society has rescued children from hard and often exploitative labor practices and instead conscientiously schooled its young, the concept of labor as a socializing influence on our young has to a great extent been lost. Schools have taken on the entire burden. It is an impossible task for one institution. Socialization is by definition a community responsibility. The children need more contact with the adult community, not less.

Bringing people under one roof is a challenge; it’s also something that traditional schools do routinely. Schools can only do so much, and the irony here is that sometimes taking a kid out of a traditional school and plugging him into a community of virtual learners who live nearby, might, under the right circumstances, actually enhance their socialization. But such a scenario is largely dependent on the resourcefulness of the parents involved. Truth be told, virtual schools have much more in common with the individual tutoring or home school model than with the idea of a school. Understandably, they want to be called “schools” because of the funding that comes with such a designation. But until virtual schools can verify that they bring people together to participate in an ongoing and substantive educational discourse they are not truly schools. They are credit mills. Make no mistake about it, they are in the business of selling credits, and they are making money doing it.

What happens under the school roof is of course what matters. It’s hard to see how the virtual classroom stacks up against a high quality classroom experience. Then again, we know that there too many children for whom the classroom experience is something less than high quality. Virtual schools seem to be capitalizing on that. It remains to be seen whether they are in any meaningful way offering a remedy for it. As we divert more and more resources from regular schools, it is important to ask, “What will be the centerpiece of a high quality public school system in the next generation?”

I for one do not wish to see virtual curriculum disappear. It meets a legitimate need. On the other hand, the teacher-student relationship has served human kind well for a few millennia at least, and it deserves a privileged place within our public policy and budget priorities. I fail to see how we advance the cause of quality education in this state by siphoning off public education funds for virtual schools which are not held accountable for the same things regular schools are held accountable. Why the preferential treatment? Is it really in the name of offering parents alternatives or is it a shot across the bow of public education? I am loathe to abandon the traditional school for some brave new vision which puts young people at an even greater distance from qualified teachers and their peers and plants them instead in front of a computer monitor. Hopefully the notion that teachers and their pupils should encounter each other in a real place in real time and engage in real face to face discourse will not become quaint or anachronistic.

We are not learning machines, at least not yet. Aristotle believed that the way to happiness lay in the concrete and habitual explorations of social goods such as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor, and wealth. He called the fruits of such work, practical wisdom. It was, for Aristotle, something far more than the rote learning of rules. It’s value and its proof is to be found in a social context, and it is created in the crucible of social experience. It cannot be obtained in a vacuum. One acquires the virtue of bravery by doing brave things, of being just by dealing justly with others, of being true by telling the truth etc...Say what you will about the public school, it remains a place where countless such explorations can still be carried out on a daily basis. Virtual schools are virtually impoverished in this fundamental regard.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Boylesque 101

My oldest son, Tim, is a hit with the Seattle Gay News. Check it out here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fall comes down

Last night the frost hit hard. This morning as we lay in bed and looked out the window at the brilliant leaves lit up by the rising sun, there came a moment where they began to fall discreetly one by one. One moment we were looking at a still life; then as if a switch had been thrown, they began to fall. Anywhere you looked for longer than two or three seconds a leaf would cross your sight, descending in erratic spirals.

By the time we got up, got dressed, and went outside the ground was carpeted.

We all went for a walk. The kids kicked the leaves around for awhile. Then one of them remembered a book we'd read just the other day where a boy spots the last remaining leaf on a tree, and believing that it is good luck to catch the last one before it touches the earth, he waits patiently for the leaf to fall. After awhile his friends lose interest and abandon the project, but the boy persists, attended by his dog.

Tess and Colm decided that they too would try to catch a lucky leaf as it fell.

They spent the rest of walk with their eyes cast upwards and, occasionally, their arms outstretched.

The leaves came down, softly, crazily. Nearly all of them found the earth. A few landed in our kids' hands. I even caught a couple on camera. (Click on the images for a larger view)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

This year's play

It's been ten days since I posted something...I can't believe it. I'll dispense with the excuses and just get to work.

I've selected The Diary of Anne Frank for the LHS drama production in April. That of course is pending approval of my boss(es). The original diary was adapted for the stage in 1954. It won awards for Best Play but it also received criticism for soft pedaling the Jewish dimension of the story. Wendy Kesselman adapted the original adaptation and the play was revived not too long ago on Broadway. After reading it, I found myself deeply moved by the story and intrigued by the project.

The play has the potential to resonate with teens because the protagonist is one of them. Anne is irrepressibly inquisitive and precocious. While her fate is horrible, her life brims with energy and longings. Young people should be able to relate.

Then of course there is the play's historical context, the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, which resides in an ever receding historical past, but which is increasingly invoked by some of the more strident voices in our current political discourse. Indeed, there seems to be something of a contest these days to see who can co-opt the Weimar Republic analogy and use it to their own advantage. It's interesting to see how people try to employ it, and who they cast in the principal roles.

Who are today's weak-kneed, liberal, bourgeois democrats, saddled with a failing economy and a legacy of humiliation, and who are today's thuggish populists scapegoating minorities and foreigners, preaching love for the fatherland and evoking dreams of a return to a golden age of racial and national purity? It's an awful contest any way you slice it, but I wish people would pay more attention to the historical details of this analogy and be a bit more rigorous in their thinking about it..

I'd like to mount some kind of exhibit in the lobby of the auditorium which puts on display certain historical information relevant to the play. As it happens I was just today reading Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Daily Dish, and came upon a link to site which posted a letter written by General Eisenhower to General Marshall about a month before the end of WWII. In it he describes a visit he made to an extermination camp.
On a recent tour of the forward areas in First and Third Armies, I stopped momentarily at the salt mines to take a look at the German treasure. There is a lot of it. But the most interesting - although horrible - sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to "propaganda."

I'm impressed by Eisenhower's prescience and his determination to bear witness against future deniers of the truth. Makes me want to read more about that man.

While googling the subject of Anne Frank it didn't take me long to come across sites dedicated to denying her story and to portraying it as just another example of Zionist propaganda. I suppose there might some such reaction to the play though I doubt it.

So, there it is. Last year a comedy - this year an historical drama. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

text to speech francais

There is a website that uses computer generated voices to produce "authentic" oral readings of written texts using the phonetic principles of different languages. It's called Text to Speech.Here's a sample text from my French 1 class. I've selected the French language speaker. Click on "Say it" when you get to the site.

Now go back and listen to the same text this time with an English speaker selected. What you'll hear is uncannily close to the pronunciations I hear from some students. The nice thing about this is that when my students here the English speaker, they recognize the bad accent immediately which is in many cases the first step towards acquiring a better one.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Cinder and Sammy Romp Round The Rocker

Caught this on video last weekend...normal horseplay between the household pets, Cinder and Sammy. Enjoy. (No animals were harmed in the making of this video)