The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and top policymakers have promoted and funded small urban high schools for nearly a decade. Then Bill Gates said in his 2009 Annual Letter that while these small urban high schools had accomplished much for students they had largely failed to improve academic achievement. No more big bucks for this initiative. No other foundation executives or federal/state officials, all of whom had tripped over themselves in hailing small urban high schools, said Oops!
Ditto for charter schools. Policy elites across both political parties for the past decade have promoted charter schools to offer urban parents and their children choices they would not have in district regular schools. A recent 15-state study concluded that, indeed, 17 percent of charters offered “superior educational opportunities for their students.” Nearly half of the charters, however, differed little from regular public school “options,” and here is the kicker: 37 percent of the charters “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”
There’s more bad news on charters (I winced because, in general, I support this public option and sit on a charter school board). In a recent report from the Thomas Fordham Institute, a researcher tracked 2,000 low-performing regular and charter schools between 2003-2009 to see if they had turned around, been closed, or remained low-performing. Eighty percent of these low performing regular public schools were still in business–yes, 80 percent. But here’s the surprise: 72 percent of low-performing charters also stayed open and continued to perform poorly. In spite of all that talk from policy elites championing charters that “our bad schools don’t last–either they improve or they close,” there has been persistent failure. I recalled the Tom Toles cartoon:
Sure, turning around failing schools is tough work but only 1 percent of public and charter schools did, indeed, make it into the top half of their state’s proficiency rankings–a very high bar to cross. OK, another Oops but one that few officials pushing charters will voice.
Then there is the three-decade long, unrelenting promotion of computers in classrooms and online instruction. Now, we have a new corporate and civic-driven coalition chaired by two ex-state governors issuing a report (p. 19 of Digital Learning Now Report FINAL lists corporatate, foundation, and top policymakers who participated).
To be charitable, evidence of students’ academic achievement gains attributed to online instruction, laptops, and other hardware and software in schools is scant. Evidence that regular instructional use of these machines will transform teaching and learning is barely visible. And the dream that school use of these machines and applications will lead to better jobs (except in programs where technical certificates can lead to work–e.g., Cisc0–if they are available), well, I won’t even mention the scarcity of evidence to support that dream.
So what do these two-governors plug in their Digital Learning Commission report?
“Providing a customized, personalized education for students was a dream just a decade ago. Technology can turn that dream into reality today. The Digital Learning Council will develop the roadmap to achieve that ultimate goal.”
Sure, this is an advertisement pushing for-profit online outfits such as K12 and non-profit projects such as the Florida Virtual School and “hybrid” schools. See here and here. These ex-governors want states to alter their policies to accommodate this “Brave New World” where students get individual lessons tailored to what they need to learn. Question: After decades of blue-ribbon commissions issuing Utopian reports promising “revolutionary” and “transformed” schools, where is the evidence that such futures are either possible or worthwhile?
Answer: When it comes to technology policy, evidence doesn’t matter.
The rational part of me still expects top decision-makers, even ex-governors, to use the best evidence available to support proposed directions. The real-world political part of me recognizes that policy elites cherry-pick studies and facts to support decisions already determined. I guess I am still innocent enough to expect top decision-makers faced with an accumulation of evidence that runs counter to their small high school, charter, or technology policies, at the very least, would pull up their socks and admit that they either goofed or would reconsider their decision. They won’t because Oops! is taboo in policymakers’ vocabulary.
I would find the expression of honest doubts about policies derived from facts, not faith, to be both refreshing and courageous.