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Leonie Haimson

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The Reality and the Hype Behind Online Learning and the 'School of One'

Posted: 09/07/2012 12:22 pm

The Daily News has a story about a new negative evaluation of DOE's much vaunted "School of One" program. This study, which found no significant achievement gains from the program, was quietly placed on the Research Alliance website in the middle of summer with no apparent outreach to the media or the public. This contrasts with the huge publicity machine promoting this online program that has operated since its inception as a pilot started in the summer of 2009.

The School of One is an online, or "blended," learning math program, combining online with small group instruction. It was started by Joel Rose when he was at DOE, using an algorithm devised by Wireless Generation. Rose, along with Chris Rush, formerly of Wireless Gen, has now taken the company private and renamed it New Classrooms. According to its website, the company is hiring new staff to work in NYC, as well as in Washington D.C., Chicago and Perth Amboy, N.J. schools starting this year. I wrote about DOE's awarding of this contract to New Classrooms last year, in apparent violation of conflict of interest rules.

By the time it started as a small scale pilot in the summer of 2010, it already earned a story in The New York Times. By September, Arthur Levine, former head of Teacher's College, wrote that School of One "may turn out to be the single most important experiment conducted in education so far. It is the future." By November, it had already won a place on Time magazine's best inventions of 2009, which described it as "learning for the Xbox generation."

This led Mayor Bloomberg to put out a press release, boasting that "The School of One [is] creating a 21st century classroom to meet the individual needs and learning styles of every student." Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard wrote an oped for the Boston Globe in 2011, saying that "This type of out-sourcing [to private providers] could be encouraged everywhere, which could support a nationwide industry dedicated to smartening our children. "

The School of One has also been recognized and encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education, which awarded the DOE a three year $5 million I3 federal Innovation grant to expand it in NYC schools. By the time the application was written, DOE had already spent $1.5 million on the project, and now according to the Daily News, has spent $9 million over the past three years -- they say from private donations. According to its federal grant application, the DOE had planned to spend $45 million on expanding the program through June 2013 (though the DN also reports officials expect to downsize that by an unspecified amount, "with help from a private contractor.")

The "personalized" learning system featured in "the School of One" has now become the focus of the new federal RTTT program for districts; encouraging the spread of virtual or "blended" instruction through computers, by offering nearly $400 million in grants, again with little or no evidence that such programs work. Nearly 900 districts have applied for these grants, including the Superintendent of Miami, who recently said that Miami's application "will focus on personalizing education for students based on how they best learn, rely more on digital content and changing the learning environment and outcomes of middle school students who have fallen behind... This is a creative and effective way of spurring reform from the bottom up."

Bottom up? Not exactly. This is an initiative driven from the top down. What has been the actual record of the School of One?

In the spring of 2010, the School of One was implemented at IS 228, in Brooklyn. By Sept. 2010, it was added to two more middle schools, MS 131 in Manhattan's Chinatown, and IS 339 in the Bronx. I visited the program in Chinatown and was not impressed; I saw chaos and many disengaged kids, as I described here. As Joel Rose said during my tour of the school, it is intended to substitute for smaller classes, since "no human being" can provide fully individualized instruction to a class of 25.

As Gary Rubinstein first explained on his blog, in two of these schools it caused achievement to slip in math, according to the DOE's Progress reports: slightly at IS 228, and drastically at IS 339. By the next year, two of the three schools had dropped the program, including at MS 131, the school I visited in Chinatown (which had already earned the school an "A" in math progress the year before) and at IS 339, whose progress grade on math fell from a "B" to a "D." MS 131, the school that appeared to do the best with the program but dropped it anyway, has a relatively high-achieving, mostly Asian population; the school that did the worst, IS 339, has primarily poor black and Hispanic students.

Now the new study from the Research Alliance not only quietly confirms those findings, but also finds that the lowest achieving students within each school were the ones who tended to fall furthest behind in below-grade level skills, showing that this virtual instruction may actually widen rather than narrow the achievement gap, as some have feared:

Students who came to SO1 with low prior performance were exposed to approximately twice as many below-grade-level skills, compared to those who came with higher performance levels from prior grades. However, these students mastered less than 15 percent of the skills to which they were exposed (as measured by SO1's daily assessments), compared to approximately 85 percent mastery for students who entered with higher prior performance.

These results fly in the face of the DOE's I3 application, which said it should be awarded extra points because it would provide special benefits for struggling students.

Next year, there will be four more NYC middle schools which will adopt this model, along with IS 228: IS 49 and IS 2 in Staten Island, MS 88 and MS 381 in Brooklyn. There will also be a new "randomized" study, led by Jonah Rockoff of Columbia.

Good luck to these schools. One wonders if the parents at these schools have given their consent to what is really an experiment on their kids, with no research to back it up. As the new study points out:

...SO1 program staff hypothesized that schools might experience a variety of implementation and outcome "dips," in which instructional quality and student achievement might initially decline, as teachers adjusted to the new organization and delivery of the math curriculum. ...in general, educational innovation is exceedingly challenging: Program impact is often incremental, rather that abrupt and dramatic; the process of development and evidence building is iterative and dynamic, rather than linear and uni-directional; and it often takes years, rather than months, to establish program efficacy and a credible track record for expansion and scale.

Meanwhile, of course, the DOE makes decisions about holding back children, and evaluates teachers and grades schools based on one year's worth of test results -- regardless of the sentiments expressed above.

These words of caution are similar to those expressed by a recent study of the Izone, DOE's online learning initiative, of which the School of One belongs:

"....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. "

There is a well-documented gold rush now, with many companies getting into the business of online learning, including Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, headed by Joel Klein, which acquired Wireless shortly after Klein was hired. With the help of the right-wing organization ALEC, of which NewsCorp is a member, these companies are using their considerable resources to fund astroturf organizations and persuade politicians to encourage or even require students to take virtual courses for credit, with NO evidence that this helps them in any way. You can read exposes about how this has happened in Maine, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin and nationwide.

Here in New York, the Regents and the State Education Department has encouraged the growth of online learning by eliminating seat time requirements which, along with the overriding pressure for high schools to inflate their graduation rates or risk being closed, will likely cause districts statewide to follow in NYC's footsteps by implementing substandard credit recovery systems, what Diane Ravitch has rightly called"academic fraud."

More and more in this nation, we are moving towards two different school systems: one for the wealthy, who insist of proven reforms including small classes for their children. The other highly experimental model, for disadvantaged and even middle class kids, will increasingly deliver so-called "personalized" instruction via a machine, causing struggling students to fall even further behind. Is this the future we want for our kids?

See also Jersey Jazzman's blog here and here on how the superintendent of Perth Amboy, a controversial former NYC administrator named Janine Caffrey, has proposed a $575,900 contractfor New Classrooms. Meanwhile, Caffrey is serving only at the pleasure of Chris Cerf, Joel Rose's former boss who is now NJ Education Commissioner, as the Perth Amboy school board has voted to remove her.

 

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