Required - Written by on Friday, November 25, 2011 14:16 - 0 Comments

Heard: Right-Leaning Political & Cash Machine Fueling Digital Learning

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  Dear Readers, This article is a “Must Read” about online learning. Lee Fang’s article “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools” was funded by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. The article sets up a “vast right-wing conspiracy” outlining some of the power players and big money from Republican and conservative circles lining up in favor of online education and how they are teeing up states and federal governments to spend money on virtual learning: Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, banker Michael Moe, Tom Vander Ark, Florida Virtual Academy, Patricia Levesque, Meridian Strategies LLC, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Foundation for Excellence in Education, Foundation for Florida’s Future, Ron Packard, K12 Inc., Arizona State University’s SkySong Conference, Global Silicon Valley Partners, Alliance For School Choice, Education Innovation Summit, former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, former New York City schools chancellor and now News Corp. executive Joel Klein, Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA,Education Reform Now, ABS Capital, Susan Patrick at The International Association for Online Learning (iNACOL), the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network (ALEC), State Policy Network (SPN), Connections Learning executive Mickey Revenaugh, Blackboard executive Michael Stanton, Education Department director of technology Karen Cator, Google executive Jaime Casap, Shafeen Charania at Microsoft and Bob Moore at Dell.

While The Nation presents the facts in a way to suggest this is a nefarious development… we have several observations:

1) The collaboration of all these people and groups is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. This is how business and politics works in America. To create change, one must network and raise money and strategize. That’s what is happening in online learning.

2) If these people and groups prioritize profits for the few over quality and results for the many, they will fail.

3) If they fail, digital learning will be set back. America will be set back as well. On the other hand, if they succeed, America’s leadership position in quality digital learning could help it continue as a “light on the hill.” It could also be an export industry for American institutions – tech start-ups and high schools and colleges – to make money by educating people outside our shores.

4) A key to avoid failure and maximize success is to stress key principles such as:

a) Focus on quality, quality, quality in educational products. A flight to quality must happen if digital learning makes natural gains rather than forced gains.

b) Treat human beings – teachers and administrators well in the process of adding technology and reform. Pay people well and provide them with dignity. Education will always involve human contact, mentorship and guidance. It costs money.

c) Be transparent rather than sneaky. In the long run, deception and sneakiness does not pay off. Greed often goes hand in hand with that. The sub-prime mortgage was a key example of the greed, deception and sneakiness that was occurring in the housing market. We know how that brought us into the current financial crises and economic downturns.

The stakes are high. The opportunities are great. Here is what Fang writes in The Nation about how players are trying to capitalize:

“We think that’s so important because every student, regardless of what they do after high school, they’ll be learning online,” said Tom Vander Ark, a prominent online education advocate, on a recently distributed video urging the adoption of online course requirements. Vander Ark, a former executive director of education at the influential Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now lobbies all over the country for the online course requirement. Like Moe, he keeps one foot in the philanthropic world and another in business. He sits on the board of advisors of Democrats for Education Reform and is partner to an education-tech venture capital company, Learn Capital. Learn Capital counts AdvancePath Academics, which offers online coursework for students at risk of dropping out, as part of its investment portfolio. When Vander Ark touts online course requirements, it is difficult to discern whether he is selling a product that could benefit his investments or genuinely believes in the virtue of the idea.

To be sure, some online programs have potential and are necessary in areas where traditional resources aren’t available. For instance, online AP classes serve rural communities without access to qualified teachers, and there are promising efforts to create programs that adapt to the needs of students with special learning requirements. But by and large, there is no evidence that these technological innovations merit the public resources flowing their way. Indeed, many such programs appear to be failing the students they serve.

A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.

“Why are our legislators rushing to jump off the cliff of cyber charter schools when the best available evidence produced by independent analysts show that such schools will be unsuccessful?” asked Ed Fuller, an education researcher at Pennsylvania State University, on his blog.

The frenzy to privatize America’s K-12 education system, under the banner of high-tech progress and cost-saving efficiency, speaks to the stunning success of a public relations and lobbying campaign by industry, particularly tech companies. Because of their campaign spending, education-tech interests are major players in elections. In 2010, K12 Inc. spent lavishly in key races across the country, including a last-minute donation of $25,000 to Idahoans for Choice in Education, a political action committee supporting Tom Luna, a self-styled Tea Party school superintendent running for re-election. Since 2004, K12 Inc. alone has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level direct campaign contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management, became the second-biggest Ohio GOP donor, with more than $4.2 million in contributions in the past decade.

Via The Nation 

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