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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 01/25/2011

Teaching without classroom teachers

By Valerie Strauss

Florida is the state that keeps on giving, at least to education writers. What it gives to its students is another question. One thing it isn’t giving to all of them these days is classroom teachers.

According to The New York Times, more than 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools are now in a program in which they are taking core subjects via computer. There’s no teacher in the class, but, rather, a “facilitator” to help the kids.

One especially interesting thing about the arrangement is this: Many and perhaps most of the students had no idea what they were walking into when they started school last fall.

And another: These “e-learning labs,” were opened at the start of this academic year to help school officials get around the state law -- approved in a referendum by voters in 2002 -- that limits class size. By this past fall, core subject classes were allowed to have no more than 18 in K-3, 22 students in grades 4-8 and 25 students in grades 9-12.

But the law doesn’t apply to virtual classrooms. So they can and do have more than the limit; in some cases, 35 or 40 or more students.

The on-line classes are provided by Florida Virtual School, which is part of the state's public education system and offers online classes for children both in Florida and beyond. According to the school's website, more than 90 courses are available, and teachers and students interact through email, voice mail, telephone conversations and instant messenger. "Students are encouraged to contact the teacher when there is a need of any kind. Teachers speak via telephone with students and their parents at least once per month."

How’s that for clever? It’s no wonder that new Gov. Rick Scott wants to change the name of the Florida Department of Education to the Florida Department of Education Innovation.

Really, he does.

Changing the name on all official documents, letterheads, etc., sounds like a priority use of public money to me. You too?

When Scott says -- as he does frequently -- that the public schools are failing too many Florida kids, he obviously knows he is essentially saying that the last two governors, both of them Republican and one of them the powerful and reform-minded Jeb Bush, haven’t done enough since 1999 when Bush started the state’s reform program.

Now the Sunshine State is doing everything that a modern school reformer could hope for: charter schools, vouchers, on-line education (the country’s biggest), pay performance for teachers, plans to dismantle teacher tenure.... but it isn’t enough for Scott.

He wants to go a step farther than everybody else and expand a voucher program that allows low-income and disabled students to use public money to go to private schools to ALL students.

The preliminary plan works like this: Vouchers, euphemistically termed “education savings accounts,” would be created and the state would deposit public education funds into them for each eligible students. Parents would shop for the school they like -- public or private -- and help pay for it with 85 percent of the state’s per-student funding figure -- which this year is $6,843.

This could all be chalked up to just another education quirk or two in a state known for its quirkiness (disclosure: I’m a native Floridian) if it weren’t for the fact that Florida is seen around the country by many educators as a model for school reform.

If sending kids to virtual classrooms without telling them, and funding public education through vouchers, are part of the reform model in question, Floridians can keep it to themselves.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 25, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Teachers  | Tags:  florida, florida education, florida schools, florida virtual school, gov. rick scott, online classes, rick scott, virtual classrooms  
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Teachers talk to students at least once a month? What a concept!

It seems like this would be ok for one class a semester, but not more than one.

Posted by: ubblybubbly | January 25, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Rhetoric aside: how are the virtual school students performing?

Posted by: mevans66 | January 25, 2011 10:16 AM | Report abuse

"If sending kids to virtual classrooms without telling them, and funding public education through vouchers, are part of the reform model in question, Floridians can keep it to themselves."
One can make a strong case that the reason there's such a push for school choice today, especially from urban parents, is from the now generation or so of students being dumped into classes without their consent, or even worse into schools implementing the latest education fad without parents having any options for their children. If you're African-American, the only 'golden age' of public education was prior Integration/Civil Rights Act, where families and (segregated) schools were personally committed to your success, and the teachers went to church with your parents/lived on the same block. Since the mid-60's public education has been disastrous for urban African-Americans, and they've been powerless to effect change until now through choice.
Let's imagine that a significant number of Floridian parents support the voucher program, employ it, and are happy with it. Who are we to argue what a state is doing for its constituents? Florida is exercising their rights as the Constitution intended. If the program doesn't work, the Floridians will decide that FOR FLORIDA.
I read on another blog someone bemoaning that Rhee is setting her 'base camp' here in California, Sacramento precisely. My response was, "So." Parents will decide if what she's offering is a solution or snake oil, not us in the education peanut gallery telling them what's good or bad for them.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 25, 2011 10:36 AM | Report abuse

More gimmicks and fads. Imagine what we could do for children if all the money spent developing and promoting gimmicks (and political campaigns for such nonsense) was spent instead on equalizing school resources, improving teacher training, and reducing class sizes...

Posted by: TeacherSabrina | January 25, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

All of the 'options' Florida is offering have the same issues as public education: they are only as good as the quality of programs & people - administrators, teachers, evaluators, etc. implementing them - and more importantly, in the voucher plan there are two huge issues:
1) poor and uneducated parents rarely
are aware of the range of quality
and number of schools available
(which I am sure the politicians
are counting on)
2) Even if every parent were saavy in
the needs of their child and the
kind of school they should look for,
there aren't enough of those schools

The above two facts alone make the
field wide open for wannabe, poorly
trained 'educators' looking to make
money off of unwitting parents and
students. And you can bet these kinds
of schools will hardly be held
accountable because hey, SOMEONE has
to teach the poorer kids.

Depending on on-line classes for students below college age? Talk about education on the cheap....

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 25, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Isaac Asimov wrote a short story 60 years ago called, "The Fun They Had." It dealt with the fun students must have had in the "old days" when they had a live person as a teacher...and went to school with other children. Read it...

Posted by: sebloom | January 26, 2011 4:14 PM | Report abuse

The future is now. In my youtube video "21st Century Skills" I speculated that the teacher of the future's job would be so automated and standardized that his sole responsibility would be "to make sure the kids don't unplug anything." That was satire, but now it's reality.

Posted by: iamcompucomp | January 28, 2011 7:28 PM | Report abuse

I wrote my "21st Century Skills" video on youtube as satire, but now it's reality. Thanks to standardization and computers, the teacher's primary purpose is now to "make sure the kids don't unplug anything."

Posted by: iamcompucomp | January 28, 2011 7:30 PM | Report abuse

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