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Leonie Haimson

Leonie Haimson

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Class Bias, Class Size and Online Learning

Posted: 05/16/11 02:00 PM ET

It's not enough that school districts across the country are laying off teachers right and left and increasing class size to intolerable levels. It seems that the D.C. think tanks are absolutely dedicated towards further encouraging this trend and destroying any efforts to retain equitable class sizes in our public schools.

Last week in the Daily News, Chester Finn of the conservative Fordham Institute attacked the whole notion of class size reduction, proposing that putting kids on computers instead would be more cost-effective and get better results:

Technology holds huge potential to magnify the effectiveness of great teachers and customize the educational experience of more students. New York City is experimenting with this potential, and "hybrid" schools around the country are blending face-to-face instruction with high-quality online instruction. No, technology is no panacea, and it does carry some near-term costs. In the long run, though, it will save money for districts and states while also delivering their young people a better -- and more modern, and very likely more motivating -- education.

What Finn failed to mention in his Op/Ed is that he is on the board of K12, the nation's largest for-profit chain of online charter schools.

Two weeks ago, the Center for American Progress put out a Gates-funded report attacking class size, and without any evidence of results, also proposed that online instruction would be more cost-effective. Here is my critique of this flimsy report authored by Matthew Chingos. Last week, Brookings Institute put out another report, co-authored by Chingos and Russ Whitehurst, attacking class size reduction yet again.

This is especially ironic, given that Whitehurst was formerly the head of the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. DOE, which has identified class size reduction as one of only four education reforms that have been proven to improve student achievement through rigorous evidence. Online learning was not on that list, of course.

Neither were any of those speculative proposals that Whitehurst suggested in his Brookings report as preferable, since none of them have the solid research backing of class size reduction: "choosing more effective curriculum; reconstituting the teacher workforce (for example by substituting Teach for America teachers for new teachers from traditional training routes); and enrolling students in popular charter schools in urban areas."

Despite all the spin, there is little or no evidence of positive results for online learning, as a New York Times article pointed out a few weeks ago. And there are lots of counter-examples that should make us worry:

  • Agora Cyber Charter School, an online charter school run by K12 in Pennsylvania, failed to make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and had to send a letter to parents announcing its mandated "improvement" efforts.
  • The Columbus Dispatch has concluded that five of the seven largest online schools in Ohio have graduation rates lower than those of the state's worst traditional public school district; six of the seven were rated as less than "effective."

A recent report from Center for Reinventing Public Education analyzed New York City's plan to rapidly expand online learning testing to 400 schools over the next few years. The authors explained the motivation behind this rapid push:

New York City is fast-tracking the iZone in part to meet goals set by Mayor Bloomberg's administration, which will end in three years, and in part to meet recent Race to the Top goals. As Arthur VanderVeen, NYCDOE Chief of Research and Development, says, "We have three years and we need to achieve dramatic, large-scale change. ...The iZone was born out of frustration among NYC Department of Education (DOE) reformers who, after eight years of reforms known as "Children First," were only able to accomplish what they view as significant but incremental improvement. ..."

So I guess the reforms they've been trying up to now haven't yet worked so well, huh? The authors of the report warn that this new expansion is very speculative, in terms of its experimental and unproven nature:

NYC school district leaders are taking risks with the iZone, implementing new models, committing deeply to a defined set of principles that challenge core assumptions about what a school should look like, and moving to scale very quickly. How and when they will know if they got the big bet right is a question district leaders will have to ask so that students are not subjected for too long to programs and schools that don't work. ...At some point, the district may get pushback from parents about the idea of having their children participate in unproven programs and may need to consider catch-up academic plans if certain programs are not effective.

But top DOE officials, including NYC's Deputy Chancellor Shael Suransky are apparently willing to "fix" the data to ensure that these schools do not register as failing, no matter what the actual results:

Officials anticipate the accountability model may need to be adjusted to measure the outcomes of iZone schools so that the schools are given some latitude to take reasonable risks without fear of landing on the district's school intervention list. To that end, NYCDOE's accountability office is starting a planning process to come up with some variations in the accountability system for iZone schools. Shael Suransky, former Chief Accountability Officer and now Chief Academic Officer, is considering using averaged performance results over multiple years instead of annual test score data and will likely use additional data (not just test scores) to inform accountability decisions.

Despite the risks to children and the lack of informed consent on the part of their parents, the city appears determined to recklessly expand online learning over the next few years, and to spend $540 million next year alone on hardware, software and computer wiring to do so.

This large scale experiment is backed by Bill Gates, after all, as well as Joel Klein, who runs Murdoch's online learning division, and many other computer and testing companies that are eager to make a buck off our kids.

Of course, no member of the ruling class, including the people backing this PR barrage, including Gates, Klein and Bloomberg, would enroll their own children in a school that deprived them of smaller classes, because they want to ensure that their own children have the best chance at success. Indeed, all of them sent their own children to private schools with small classes. Chester Finn enrolled his children at Sidwell Friends (where Obama's children attend) and Exeter; both schools feature small classes, with Exeter boasting of class sizes of 8-12.

Yet it seems for these same people, it is fine for them to recommend that other people's children should be relegated to classes of thirty or more, and hooked up to computers for "differentiated" instruction.

I'm not surprised at Finn, who after all has admitted that he wants to "blow up" public education. But for Brookings and CAP to attack class size reduction, one of the few reforms known to narrow the achievement gap, and to act as boosters for such speculative risky alternatives is disgraceful.

It's as unforgivable as the actions of the bogus think tanks, financed by the tobacco industry, that attacked the notion that cancer was linked to smoking; or the fake research financed by the coal industry that still denies the reality of global warming.

What this reveals instead is their complete lack of regard for social justice and equitable opportunities for children. Instead they'd rather push large-scale experiments on other people's kids, many of them disadvantaged, an experiment which would never be allowed in the field of public health but is apparently the hallmark of education "reform" in the 21st century. Small classes for the upper classes, virtual learning for everyone else.

My TV debate with Chingos on class size is here; here is a link to the radio show where I debated Raegen Miller, associate director for Education Policy at the Center for American Progress, about their dreadful report.

 

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