Yep, the reform-bound train has left the station and the diesel is roaring down the track spouting promises of a rosy technological future for public schools. Oops! Delete “schools” and insert “customized services.”
On board the train are cheerleaders (e.g., Tom Vander Ark, Rick Hess, Michael Horn, Paul Peterson, Jonathan Schorr) writing press releases, articles, and books. They tout hybrid and virtual schools (e.g., “New York City’s School of One,” San Jose’s Rocketship schools, San Diego’s “High Tech High,” and the Florida Virtual School) that are in the vanguard of transforming districts and schools into customized service providers.
Techno-centric reformers celebrate the efficiency (less cost and more productivity) and individualized instruction in “blended” learning and virtual schools. These hybrids immerse students in a digital world where individual lessons are electronically-crafted to fit students–this is where differentiated instruction enters–for part of the day. In these schools, some teachers teach traditional lessons while others coach individual students. Hybrids have fewer teachers–that is where efficiency enters–with much student time spent online. For hybrids located in largely minority and poor high schools, however, the double task of helping students erase academic deficits while preparing them for college-level work is a tall mountain to climb. In such hybrids, it makes sense to combine face-to-face teaching and computer lab work for part of a day. .
So what’s the big deal about converting schools into hybrids and “blending” individualized technology-delivered lessons and face-to-face contact between teachers and students? The Big Deal is that champions of this approach imagine hybrids as a mid-point toward the destination of dismantling most schools. Instead of “schools,” they think “services” that parents can buy once they have sufficient information. As one cheerleader put it:
“If we re-imagine schools as mechanisms that provide students with an assortment of services instead of delivering an indivisible package of “education,” we can start to disentangle the components of that package and customize them to fit specific student needs and abilities EduO-2011-03-g )….
“[B]reaking the stranglehold of the whole-school model ultimately requires that states and districts shift away from a vision of choice in which students merely choose between schools and toward a model more akin to that of the health savings account in health care.
Rather than just paying for students to go to approved school A or B, the state would deposit money in an account in the name of each student and then allow parents to use that money to procure services from an array of state-approved providers….”
If this sounds like a system of market-based choices, it is.
Train engineers on this track to this future want to “unbundle” school structures (i.e., no more age-graded school, subjects taught by teachers in self-contained classrooms) and academic subjects into an array of individually purchased services (e.g., Advanced Placement courses, foreign languages, art, music) tailored to what parents see as the individual needs of their children and deliver these services via technology at home and various sites including even schools. Unbundling school structures and content approximates a stylish version of vouchers for parents to use in selecting educational services.
So what? What’s wrong of hurtling down this railroad track of creating hybrids with an eye toward converting all schools into a shopping menu of educational products acquired electronically? What is gained and what is lost?
The gains are obvious to those hyping hybrids and online instruction.There is increased access to educational services tailored to individual parents’ and student’s needs. Also projected is increased efficiency in schooling through decreased costs–yes, fewer teachers–and higher productivity in student outcomes. Advocates point to a 2010 study of online and blended learning that concluded:
“In recent … studies contrasting blends of online and face-to face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective…. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so” ( finalreport-4 ).
And the losses? Another digital divide. Students in largely minority and low-income schools will receive more and more online instruction in regular courses and credit recovery programs (many summer schools have been canceled) than students encounter in affluent districts.
The second loss stems from a common error that enthusiasts for hybrids and online instruction including passionate futurists make again and again. They equate access to information with becoming educated. These very smart people ignore crucial purposes public schools have served historically in a democracy.
Schools have never been solely information factories; they have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives. Few policymakers, few philanthropists, few civic and business leaders have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the decided tilt toward transforming schools into information factories.
The losses, to me, exceed the gains.