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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think you really gave the issue a great analysis, but there are a lot other reasons for this new development in the educational performance. students need to focus, there are too much distraction in the classrooms. we are aware of the peer to peer influence, beside the fashion madness, the technology ( texting, i pods, ...etc.), curriculum is just being re-read to the students its not taught. the teachers are just copying from the book to the overhead, and the students copy from it. but there are no understanding, or securing skills for the students.they are watching films from history channel, or the geography channel, then testing.
o am very disappointed in what i am seeing in schools, and these are good district, and great students too.what about labeling, and tracking, i don't see that as a parent, but when i hear my daughter talking innocently about, what the teacher, or the assistant principal said, i interpret tracking, if you are Asian, you are in gate automatically, if you are any other ethnicity, you are at the other class, and the kids dont understand, while the parents are ignorant, they don't know what the administrations of the schools are doing to their kids, they are seriously, massing up their future, but they understand it!!
lets search for new educational tools, lets protect our future. it not the color of the kids's skin, or the shape of their eyes, what will decide how much the school can get funds.
i hope you can see it the way i am looking at it.

Kay Al

2:35 AM  

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