With Charters, Everyone Wins. Almost.

We now have a Secretary of Education who believes charter and private schools are the solution to “failing” public schools. Despite plenty of data, from her home state and elsewhere, demonstrating that’s pretty much crap. And the fact that many, if not most, public schools are

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doing a good job with completing their somewhat outdated mission.1

A great investigation by ProPublica provides a great deal of evidence of just how bad charters can be by looking at “alternative” charter schools in Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. They found that many of these schools are simply being used to improve the accountability ratings of public schools, and the bottom line of charter corporations.

The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.

As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.

In the case of the Florida charter schools, students who dropped out were coded as “leaving for adult education”, which means that the public school they were transferred from did not have to count them on their dropout records. Their score remains high, the charter gets paid for the enrollment, and everybody wins.

Except the student, of course, most of whom are minority children, often with limited English skills or disabilities.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve educational outcomes for students long overlooked — including those who were black, Hispanic and low-income. Yet as the pressure ramped up, ProPublica’s analysis found, those students were precisely the ones overrepresented in alternative classrooms — where many found a second-tier education awaiting them.

Barbara Fedders, a law professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said alternative schools too frequently fail to halt students’ downward trajectory, simply isolating them, instead.

“They create little islands of segregation,” Fedders said. “If they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, it’s unclear why we have them at all.”

Actually it’s very clear. They are supposed to warehouse students who likely will not pass the standardized tests. And to earn a profit for the companies who run them.

While the ProPublica researchers focus their story on Florida, take a look at the map of Michigan, where the new Secretary of Education has invested a lot of her money and time into charter corporations. It shows a “steep rise in the alternative school population”, largely due to charter schools. Something being repeated in other states, and that the Secretary would like to expand nationwide.

Although the whole piece is rather long, it’s well worth your time. In addition to lots of data, they also include some compelling data stories about victims of these “alternative” programs, which are little more than holding cells for students who don’t fit into the narrow “accountability” culture that’s been forced on American public schools over the past almost two decades.

Just the Cool Stuff, Please

Warning: early morning, barely edited, snark ahead.

Mixed in with all the other lists from the previous year, we find EdSurge’s Top Ten S’Cool Tools of 2016. Top ten cool tools for school, get it?

Anyway, the people at EdSurge2 don’t explain why these web services are the best of the year or by what measure they declare them to be the most popular of the more than 300 or so “showcased” in their weekly newsletter last year. But all that doesn’t matter, it’s a list. Let’s just get to it.

Number 10, a Jeopardy game. But this is a website so you don’t need one of the many freely available templates that have been around starting two days after PowerPoint was released.

Three of these top tools allow students to search census data, Wikipedia (for maps), and Creative Commons licensed photos. One question. Why aren’t we teaching students to responsibly search for this material on their own? Never mind, I’ve probably heard all the reasons – no time, students getting “off track”, they might find something INAPPROPRIATE!!, etc.

Two of the sites listed – one a “library of open educational resources with curated curriculum collections” and “a crowdsourced map and calendar of education events” – are really for teachers, not students. 161 education events in just the next 8 months? Really?

The only resource on the list that even sounds interesting is an app that uses the sensors built into most modern smartphones – accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer – to perform physics experiments. But haven’t we seen that before?

However, considering all this coolness is free, don’t get too attached. Free is a crappy business model for the long term health of something you rely on, in the classroom or otherwise.

Don’t Buy the Digital Hype

A few days ago, Google announced on their multiple blogs a new product called Jamboard. Breathlessly described as “a collaborative, digital whiteboard that makes it easy for your team to share ideas in real-time and create without boundaries. We’re moving the whiteboard to the cloud”.

Many educators I follow on Twitter and elsewhere passed along the post, some playing up the tight integration with Google G Suite (once known as Drive, Docs, Apps for Education and maybe a few other names) and Chromebooks, with more than a few touting how wonderful this device would be for the classroom.

There were a few voices yelling back at the hype, of course. But the hype that accompanies any big corporate announcement like this – whether the product is free or “under $6000” – usually wins.

However, I want to yell back anyway.

Based solely on Google’s press release, it’s pretty clear the Jamboard is just another interactive whiteboard (IWB). The hardware certainly appears to be top notch, including a 4K display, HD camera, speakers, Wi-Fi and a “cool stand” (according to one tweet). But it’s still an interactive whiteboard, technology that should have died as a classroom tool years ago.

Schools have already wasted tens of millions of dollars on these devices that are generally used as little more than a glorified chalkboard crossed with slideshow software featuring rolling dice. More than anything, installed in a classroom, they further lock in place the traditional teacher-directed model of instruction.

I have heard from IWB advocates who insist that it’s possible to design meaningful activities in which student interact with the boards. I’m still waiting to see it. To see anything beyond kids lining up for their turn to touch the board in response to a question. Or several students participating in some kind of contest at the board. Activities we used to do with raised hands and chalk.

Even if the price of this Google board drops by 90%, it will still be a waste of money. Instead we need to spend the meager funds governments are willing to provide for public education on technology that students use directly. Devices and software that allow them to create, communicate, and express themselves in new ways and to new audiences.

That will never describe a whiteboard, no matter how digital you make it.

Personalized Learning by Facebook

If there’s one thing Facebook is great at it’s collecting and using data on “members”. Those skills are why the company is attractive to advertisers. So why not have the same programmers who built that attention-grabbing system create “a powerful tool that could reshape how students learn”?

That tool is called Basecamp, a joint project with the Summit charter school network, and is described in this Post article as a program that “tailors lessons to individual students using software that tracks their progress”. More personalized learning.

And personalized learning systems requires lots and lots of data to do the job.

But it also captures a stream of data, and Bilicki had to sign a consent form for her children to participate, allowing their personal data to be shared with companies such as Facebook and Google. That data, the form said, could include names, email addresses, schoolwork, grades and Internet activity. Summit Basecamp promised to limit its use of the information — barring it from being used, for example, to deliver targeted ads — but Bilicki agonized over whether to sign the form.

Question: if they promise not to use the data to deliver targeted ads, why is it being shared with Facebook and Google? Two of the largest distributors of targeted advertising?

Anyway, currently about 20,000 students in 100 charter and public schools are providing that data as the company is racing to have their product ready by the beginning of the school year next fall. A product that will compete with similar personalized learning systems from dozens of edtech startups.

Although the reporter tries to put a positive face on this story – starting with a headline claiming the software “shows promise” – there are so many things wrong with this project beyond the involvement of Facebook. Like this:

“There’s a lot of hype,” said Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor who researches student privacy. “In effect, they are experimenting on children.”

Then there’s the fact that the developers have very little evidence of the effectiveness of personalized learning systems.

“We really don’t know that much about personalized learning,” said Monica Bulger, senior researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York.

Which applies to all the other companies on the hunt for venture capital to develop their version of personalize learning.

Not addressed in this story, of course, is whether the curriculum being “personalized”, how it is presented, and the pacing is appropriate for every child. Or if their learning from these systems will be meaningful enough to persist past the spring exams.

But I suppose none of these concerns are important as long as schools can boost test scores, administrators can keep their jobs, and investors are paid their profit.

At least in this case, a billionaire (Zuckerberg) is paying the bills. And Summit is the one organization in the world immune to potential data loss.

“We’re offering this for free to people,” she [Diane Tavenner, chief executive of Summit] said. “If we don’t protect the organization, anyone could sue us for anything — which seems crazy to me.”

I’m convinced.

The New Business of School

In case you haven’t heard, Silicon Valley is getting into the disrupting education business. Several tech entrepreneurs, including Salman Khan himself, are creating schools with the ultimate end goal of earning big profits from learning.

A recent segment of the podcast Note to Self visited the Brooklyn location of one called AltSchool, founded by a former Google executive and backed by $100 million from folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreesen. The goal of the company is to “optimize” education by build a “new operating system” for schools, one that seems to lean very heavily on the concept of “personalized” learning.

The descriptions and interviews from the program makes the instructional process sound great, and likely wonderful for the kids involved. But in effect they are guinea pigs, contributing data so the company can take what they learn from these ten or so small elementary and middle schools and scale it up into marketable products that could be used in most “regular” public and charter schools. Plus make projetsons teacherfits worthy of a hundred million dollar investment, of course.

I have many doubts about these experimental schools, but especially about the scaling part.

To start, the kids attending these “micro-schools” come from families that can afford to pay the up-to $30,000 tuition, or qualify for a grant. Public schools spend far less per student, and few parents could afford that kind of money for private. And we already know that small classes (30 to 120 students per AltSchool) with highly motivated students, and parents, led by a well-qualified staff almost always leads to better learning.

But what happens when they try to take the same concepts and put them in a public elementary school with 25 not-specially-selected kids per teacher? As the number of adult-kid interactions decline in the classroom setting and the software they are building (based on collecting lots of data, something else that should raise a few red flags) takes over, the experiences will also change. It’s likely test scores, not to mention student engagement, will decline noticeably.

Go listen to the whole thing and see if you hear something different. You may also want to read this profile of the company and it’s founder in Wired.

However, for now, I have many, many questions – and doubts – about this and other “high tech school” startups, siding with this view from the podcast.

NPR’s education reporter Anya Kamanetz is skeptical of Ventilla’s goal to optimize education for the masses, and she’s concerned about Silicon Valley’s foray into education. “They have a giant promise, which is that the right software system, the right operating system, is going to transform teaching and learning… and, what it ultimately means is that they have shareholders to satisfy.”

Transforming teaching and learning is not necessary compatible with making profits large enough to satisfy those shareholders. Nor should it be.