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Technology may help poor schools by starting with rich ones

My wife often starts a book by reading the last few pages. I think this is cheating. It spoils any surprises the author might have planted there. She suggests, when I say this out loud, that she is better able to appreciate the writer's craft if she knows where the story is going.

But I yielded to the temptation to do the same when I read the table of contents of Harvard political scientist Paul E. Peterson's intriguing new book, "Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning." It is an analytical history of key American school reformers, from Mann to John Dewey to Martin Luther King Jr. to Al Shanker to Bill Bennett to James S. Coleman. I knew about those guys, but the last chapter discussed someone I never heard of, Julie Young, chief executive officer of the Florida Virtual School.

Peterson is always a delight to read. Even his research papers shine. I enjoyed the entire book. But I read first his take on Young and the rise of new technology because it was a topic I yearned to understand. I have read the paeons to the wonders of computers in classrooms, but I don't see them doing much in the urban schools I care about. The 21st century schools movement in particular seems to me too much about selling software and too little about teaching kids.

I am glad I jumped ahead to Peterson's last chapter. It put the rise of school technology in a new context for me. For the first time I realized that the education reforms I write about, raising achievement in the inner city, are as Peterson puts it turning standard marketing strategies upside down. Maybe they will work better, he suggests, if we let their 21st century promoters try them out in affluent schools, seeing what works best before moving to kids who really need something better than what they've got.

"When technology transforms a system," he writes, "the process ordinarily begins with those that are the most resourceful, competent, connected, and well-off. Once an innovation proves itself, the use of the product or service diffuses. Marginal groups in society are usually the last to adopt. Digital television was first the province of the rich, though it is quickly becoming universal in the United States. Cable and telephone companies first introduced broadband technology in upscale neighborhoods, then gradually worked outward once they consolidated their market position in these friendly locations."

"When the initial clientele is resourceful and connected, it becomes easier for those touting an innovation to demonstrate that it is successful," he writes. But school reformers went the other way, focusing on "the needs of the marginal members of society." He says "NCLB asked schools to raise every child's performance up to a basic level of proficiency, but it said nothing about what should be done with students who had already reached that basic level. School vouchers were restricted to students from low-income families, and charter schools were concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where students were doing poorly in district schools."

I am not sure the analogy works in that case. No Child Left Behind, vouchers and charters were all designed to give impoverished children an array of systems that have been successfully employed in upscale neighborhoods for a century---imaginative and energetic teaching, high standards and focus on college preparation. I get his point that the latest gadgets, like those employed by the Florida Virtual School, can use the workout they are getting from private schools and affluent customers---including working student actors, models and musical proteges---before being extended to children who do not have so much going for them.

The Florida Virtual School had only 11,500 course enrollments in 2003, Peterson says, but by 2008 more than 116,238 courses had been completed and the projection for this year is nearly 200,000. Unlike the usual education reform, virtual schooling is "opening new avenues to the more ambitious and talented at least as fast as to those with fewer resources," he says. "For this reason, technological advances will not quickly obliterate the differences in the performances of ethnic or income groups. This can happen only in the long run, as technologies improve, courses are designed in more customized ways, well-designed coaching systems are put into place, and models of success become generally available. But even if outcomes become more unequal in the short run, as always happens when innovations are introduced, the opportunity to learn will be equalized."

He acknowledges that the future of virtual education and other innovations is not certain. He notes that in the vast majority of classrooms, teaching is pretty much like it always has been, even with a few computers in the corner. But the younger educators who are doing the most to transform urban and rural schools are also the educators most comfortable with the electronic tools of the new age, so they may come up with something that will prove the 21st century schools enthusiasts right.

I just resigned from Facebook, having decided I had no time for it, so my views on these modern developments are suspect. I will keep hanging around schools, and maybe, someday, I will finally see something of the new electronic era that significantly increases achievement in reading and writing for all kids. But I don't expect that any time soon.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | May 28, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Florida Virtual School, Paul E. Peterson, Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning,, education reform has to start with the rich, virtual learning  
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The Washington Post (and the edu-profit corporation they own:
KAPLAN testing services/virtual academies, etc.) --
along with their wholly-owned pundits/shill$
such as Mr. Mathews, absolutely adore
hosing around with (and romping excitedly
with their pet corporate concept)
-- "trickle-down economics".

Posted by: cooperunion | May 28, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Yes, technological change will have to start with the elites, and Peterson found an excellent way of stating it. Real world, "Hi Tech" must go hand in hand with "Hi Touch." Most of the early innovators come from families and communities that provided thousands of hours of unseen guidance - nurturing that they often take for granted. In urban schools, where counselors are fulltime test monitors, who will guide the students?

This technolgy, when introduced into struggling schools under the gun of accountability, is much more likely to be misused. The toughest schools will have no choice but to skip the guidance, the motivation, and the nurturing aspects and just use "Credit Recovery" to boost their numbers. In my school, students called it "excercising your right click finger." Whether or not the kds get an education or even get credits for a degree is secondary. The adults get to Cover Their Rear Ends, which of course is the real challenge of accountability.

And that will inevitably be a key part of "reform." If systems really act on their RttT promises, poor neighborhood schools will become virtually teacherless, with only longterm substitutes, 23 year olds out for two year-long adventures, and incompetents who couldn't find work elsewhere. Then, virtual technology will offer a fig leaf to society saying that teacherless schools aren't bad.

In public schools there is no way of knowing how many of the 200,000 in Florida will use technolgy well and how many are just being abandoned into a virtual online ghetto, but in a way where we don't have to feel guilty. But higher ed gives a clue. Notice the Frontline and the other reports on the debt being wracked up by victims of online higher ed scams. These kids often leave high school too unprepared for college or even community colleges. But they want to do good by their families. And without a lot of guidance they can be helpless before innovators that use their desires to make something of themselves to put them $10 of thousands in debt.

Posted by: johnt4853 | May 30, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

"the process ordinarily begins with those that are the most resourceful, competent, connected, and well-off."
I agree 100% for it's most logical.

Posted by: knowledgenotebook | May 30, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I have first hand experience with FL Virtual Schools having had my son in a public high school take advanced courses in Macroeconomics; Microeconomics and, get this, PE--yes, PE on line in Florida. My son is now a student at Harvard but these online courses were not the reason. He loves learning and his opinion was that these courses were an absolute joke. The online instructor was never available to talk to students and they would play phone tag for weeks. This was the case for all 3 courses--3 diff instructors. The answers were basically provided in the materials and oftentimes the materials themselves would have tests with the answers filled in already. This was in 2007 and 2008. He re-enrolled in one of these courses in college and struggled through the first semester. For PE, you had to stop what you were doing and run around the block?! Then fax a form that you did just that. Every parent of a child who was enrolled in Florida Virtual Schools despised the system and knew it was a travesty. Perhaps the courseware has improved, perhaps the flaws have been removed, but the bottom line is, the students need a teacher, they need stimulation, they need interaction real time to learn not another way to game the system.

Posted by: rsolnet | May 30, 2010 9:09 PM | Report abuse

READ a shocking, cautionary true tale
from Southern California
re: the pitfalls of UNaccountable
privatization, edu-profiteering
and virtual instruction (non-learning,
in this particular case) run amok ! --
"A Charter School Travesty" !
( view link ) --

Posted by: cooperunion | May 31, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

How can we know for sure that a strategy is successful if it is tried in high income schools? If students are already achieving at high levels how do we know that the technology is making a difference?

Posted by: Jenny04 | June 3, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

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