Category Archives: Education reform

The Online Education Multiverse: Panacea or Calamity?

Part I: Panacea: “an answer or solution for all problems or difficulties” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/panacea?s=t)

The first timeMiracle cure I heard the word panacea was in a foundational education course in college in the title of the book “The Imperfect Panacea.” The book described a history of American education, but the title focused the message toward the concept that our nation looks to schools to solve all of the problems in our society.

According to some politicians, educational leaders, and businesses that specialize in online learning environments, online education may be a panacea-type opportunity for American education. With public schools under constant scrutiny that reveals concerns related to poor international comparisons, ineffective teachers, disengaged students, and failing schools nationwide, many benefits are offered for this alternative to traditional schooling.

Websites from prominent companies proclaim: “Our award-winning curriculum has helped more than one million students succeed, and we’re proud to partner with schools in all 50 states to improve the quality and equity of education;” Happy online“…[our] courses engage students with direct-instruction videos taught by expert, on-screen teachers, interactive learning tools, and checks for understanding embedded strategically throughout each lesson;” and “personalize instruction for all your students; provide curriculum that’s 100% customizable; save teachers at least 50 hours a year – per class – managing instruction and tracking progress.” The companies provide news; reviews; awards; accolades; beautiful, professional websites; and world-class videos showing teacher interaction with students who are laughing and enjoying their learning. All of this is provided in order to advertise their ability to revolutionize education.

The standard, key ingredients for success are customization, individualization, self-pacing, interactivity, and guarantees of completion. There are often “multiple course pathways” and promises to engage and motivate students to greater depth of understanding than ever before. One company announces it can be used for “original credit, credit recovery, remediation, intervention, acceleration, and exam preparation.”  Another company sees itself well-suited for advanced learners, college and career-minded students, homeschoolers, military families, elite athletes and performers, homebound students, and students needing academic support. In other words, the companies are offering ideal education opportunities for any type of student in any type of circumstance.

As such, these online learning corporations are inviting the world into an ideal environment; practically guaranteeing success; and purporting to fill in the gaps, easily supplement, or sometimes even to take over for all of a student’s or school’s traditional education.They are accepting their role and responsibility as the panacea for the woes of American education and embracing it. There are costs associated with online learning, of course, but that too is part of the solution, as they can deliver this better education far cheaper than the costs of teachers, textbooks, and school buildings.

One of my favorite quotes directed toward advancements in any field comes from Jurassic Park (1993) Dr. Ian Malcolmby Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” With online learning being offered at minimum as a source of support but at maximum as an educational panacea, there is another side to this story of great acclaim.


Part II: Calamity: “grievous affliction” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/calamity)

With all great theories, there is a point at which what is supposed to happen or be possible must meet up with the reality of what actually happens. The videos and claims from the corporate side do not always necessarily meet up with actual experiences of students or teachers. While the first part of this article was taken mostly from the websites of the companies, the second part will rely on online reviews and anecdotal evidence from those involved with online learning.

Undoubtedly, there are positive experiences from the viewpoint of parents, educators, students, and administrators regarding online learning opportunities. However, these positives may be either misguided or exceptions to the norms for this type of education. Online education is sweeping the nation for some reason; there must be something to it. I will play the devil’s advocate for the remainder, however.

In direct contrast to everything claimed by the corporations standing to make huge sums of money off of online education, perhaps that super-dynamic learning environment is not all that great. One interesting concern for online education advocates is that if they claim traditional classrooms do not meet the learning needs of all students, would that not also translate directly to their preferred choice of education? Imagine, instead, an alternative reality to the previously proposed experience. What if online learning looked more like the following:

Students sit in large, crowded classrooms working individually on a myriad of courses with a paraprofessional at the helm. Not only is this leader in the room not specifically trained to educate the students in a particular field, he actually holds no educational degree at all. His role is not to educate and inform; it is to monitor and control. He is not an interactive piece of the online environment ensuring the success of each student; he is there simply to enforce behavior guidelines, assist students with technical difficulties (if he can), and monitor the online programming from the opposite technology side of the students. He performs such duties as pushing a button to allow a student to advance to the next level of their course, allowing students to go to the restroom, and shouting at kids who get too loud.

Students meanwhile are living in a completely different world than that depicted in the professionally created videos. Most of the time they are sitting in their chairs bored out of their minds, sleeping, or mindlessly tapping buttons on the computer.

For these students there is no motivation, interest, or learning taking place. One student wrote, “‘Learning’ [online] doesn’t give us many skills if any; unless you count staying awake as a skill.” (change.org) Often the students watch boring video after boring video and generally pay no attention to any of the content. When it is time to be assessed, they guess, cheat, or persevere by memorizing or creating a database of the questions and answers. In the end, they have learned little or nothing about the subject matter but have earned credit by the sheer force of will, luck, and robotic persistence. (Also see Widespread cheating of the online system in Denver)

Parents are often thrilled with the prospect of online learning for credit recovery, grade repair, or advancement, but later find many flaws in the system. Parents who have claimed positive results from this type of online learning experience often have no idea that their student had learned very little of the actual curriculum. Sometimes, they are elated to see that their child has earned credit and could care less about anything else. Many online educational experiences are for students desperately trying to earn credits, and learning takes a back seat, possibly 50 rows back. I can hear the parents now: “I don’t care if they learned anything, I am just happy they will be graduating.”

The administrative response is typical and expected. More kids earning more and more credits faster and faster must mean successful education. They are just tabulating numbers not evaluating the human impact.

So, that leaves teachers. Some believe this is all witchcraft; but then, these educators still have not learned the difference between reply and reply all. Some know students are not learning, but they either do not care or do not want to bother. Some have no clue what is going on. Some believe online learning can only help. Some realize evil machinations at work and may or may not be willing to stand up and fight. In the end, the teacher forces are divided and are losing the battle against the wealthier, better organized, more politically savvy corporate world.


Part III: The Online Education Multiverse: Panacea or Calamity?

Ultimately, it will be up to each individual toYour Decision decide whether online education is worthy of its growing place in American education. Do you view it as the cure for all the ills of education leading to a nation of intellectuals, or are you more inclined to think of it as a corporate takeover where bare minimum standards are met by checking off boxes whether actual learning is taking place or not? I wish we could all agree to at least pay a little more attention, spend a little energy evaluating these programs, and decide if the educational community should support this educational panacea or avoid the calamity at all costs.

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Tear Down the Math Education Reform Wall

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Recent news about math education in the United States shows that the students in this nation are lagging behind other countries and this crisis is getting progressively worse. It is a story as old as I can remember. In fact, perhaps you can answer this question, class: When was the last time that U.S. math education was considered to be doing well? My research on this subject travels back to 1957 with the Sputnik launch. Of course, the launch indicated that we were not doing well since we were outdone by the Russians, which means math education was lagging even then. The “New Math” ushered in a new approach to fix this problem in education. New math was a flop because it was too rigorous for most students. Thus, the nation embarked on a decades long pursuit of a math education system that would make all students successful in math and get us back to the self-determined role of worldwide leaders in math and science education. Because we are apparently still failing to achieve that goal, I began to consider why this was the case. I have many educational opinions, and several of them are wrapped into my explanation for the continued and progressing poor performance followed by an alternative approach to deliver us from this dilemma.

How did we get here?

First of all, the most recent realm in which to determine our failure is international testing. We perform worse than expected time after time. However, there have been plenty of educated responses explaining how we are being unfairly compared to countries who are not playing the same testing game we are, such as countries that only test their elite students, countries who should not be compared because of homogeneity and economic diversity disparities, etc. The analysis is available to suggest that the results are not as abysmal as we are lead to believe.

Secondly, media and politicians thrive on the need to show failures and a need to repair. Without such news, there would be less flash to their reporting. Without such a political platform, there would be no need to change the political posts already filled by successful leaders. As such, those who have the power to influence public thinking thrust the concept of poor math education upon us every chance they get. I can admit that I have never heard a politician state how awesome math education is in this country. Likewise, any news I do read that is positive about the results of math education are usually localized or temporary, such as for this year’s test for 4th graders; this reporting is usually accompanied by other areas where the math results are poor, perhaps 8th grade results.

Thirdly, I believe the majority of the push in math education since I became a secondary math teacher in 1995 has been towards dumbing down math education, removing “drill and kill,” making math accessible for all students, changing the focus from math as a “right or wrong” proposition into a purely conceptual thinking process, and steering away from the fact-based, skill-driven instruction towards a cooperative, discussion-style, discovery learning process. One reason for this change, perhaps, is that the best mathematical thinkers usually do not pursue careers in education; that is not to say that no great mathematicians become educators. Instead, many prefer to pursue more lucrative careers or opportunities that  provide a greater sphere of influence than the often distasteful educational universe. Without a significant presence of math professionals, the greater power in education tends to be held by those who are more likely to have struggled with their own math education. With a majority of non-math professionals controlling the curricula and instruction for math education, the prevalent push is for more and more approaches to math education that skew away from pure math instruction. Instead of accepting math for its position in the wider educational picture, these reformers who shy from traditional math try to make it fluffy/fuzzy or disguise the necessary rigor of math.

Fourthly, the more prevalent these non-math approaches to instruction have become, the worse the nation’s performance has become. With a poor instructional approach over decades, the teachers of our students are developing and presenting these poorer offerings, especially since they are the product of this system. The more traditional math teachers who present more traditional math instruction are attacked consistently and pointed out as mazethe problem, though the more prevalent alternative math education has been present long enough to have significantly impacted math education. At this point, the myriad of alternative approaches to math education (attempts to fix a broken system) have pervaded our culture for more than half a century and have created a maze of confusion. It follows that the alternative approaches to math education have failed to produce the changes constantly pursued.

How do we progress from here?

I am better at math than you! I have always been better at math than you and will always be. Of course, this is not targeted for all other people, but for approximately 90% of the rest of this nation, these statements are true. I am a high school math teacher who excelled in math classes from elementary through college. Although I have a tendency towards conceit, the information I am reporting here is arguably factual. Although I did not know when I was five that I would be a math teacher one day, I did know that I was very good at math and enjoyed it. With all of this being said, I am going to present a theory that will not be politically correct.

The “right” thing to do these days seems to be to tell every young child that they can be great at math. Some students have high levels of math aptitude and interest and could excel in math following a rigorous education program advancing considerably faster than is available generally. However, some students do not have a natural affinity for math nor natural talent. In today’s society, it has been determined that we must design a system of education for these students promoting the ideas that they can do math, should want to do math, and should enjoy math. If everyone would simply love math, everyone would be great at math, and we would dominate the world in the fields of cognition, education, and economics. The main complication with this philosophy is that our society values freedom of choice above education. Thusly, the dual-edged sword not A Nation at Risk - Averageonly forces those students who would prefer to do less work with abstract, rigorous mathematics to actually invest in mathematics more deeply than desired, but it also asserts to those who would be inclined to excel in mathematics and pursue advanced mathematical studies that anyone can do mathematics, thereby minimizing their special relationship with mathematics; at the same time that the curricula are being watered down for the most likely to succeed in and pursue mathematical endeavors, there is little benefit for the reformers’ “liberal arts” approach to mathematics for those students who are more likely to avoid mathematical studies as they age when they are given more choice in their coursework. The result of these efforts is mediocrity! This matches a criticism levied back in 1983 with one of the most famous calls to action, A Nation at Risk: “We talk a good fight about wanting to have excellent schools when in fact we’re content to have average ones.”

Ultimately, I believe that much of the reform in math education is catering to the least common denominator while hoping that the best of the best can still rise to the top. In the long run, as evidenced by the reformers own chastisement, the alternative approaches to mathematics education are failing to produce the desired results. I propose a different approach. I suggest that we institute a much greater level of rigor in the lowest grades with the purpose of discovering the divergent populations of students distinguished by comparative natural talent and comparative natural interest. In order to accomplish this, two major changes need to occur. Primarily, we need to place teachers in the lowest grades who are math specialists with high math aptitude and possibly some mathematical emphasis in their college work or professional development. Secondarily, we need to raise the amount of time spent with mathematics in those early grades. I have considered the disparity in time spent with English/Language Arts versus math activities, especially in the lower grades and believe that the lesser importance for math is a key challenge to successful math education throughout the K-12 system.

With these changes, we would be able to identify students with mathematical strengths and weaknesses. For those students who show little interest and/or ability, we move them along with the gentler, reform movement approach, maintaining high levels of expectation. These students may be placed on a path wherein Algebra 1 is taken in 10th grade. But, for those students who show greater interest and/or ability, we move them along with a more international, challenging approach. For these students, seventh grade ought to be the target for taking Algebra 1. Young children who enjoy mathematics will enjoy being pushed to excel, while those who prefer the myriad of options other than mathematics will enjoy a more compatible avenue. Especially because one size clearly does not fit all, this approach to mathematics education has the feel of honoring individuals rather than expecting a robotic product at the end of our assembly line school system. I feel as though these divergent paths to successful math education also addresses the psychoemotional needs of our students, which can be a significant factor in improving learning.

In the end, mathematics education reformers are consistently building walls that try to separate traditional from alternative practices and quite possibly teachers and students from the goal of greater math achievement. At the same time, students from all achievement levels are building walls of apathy and disinterest towards math instruction around SuccessStairs-400x250themselves.  Teachers, caught in the middle, help build all of these walls, attempting to appease all participants in the system, but generally satisfying no one. It is time to break down these walls and reuse the building materials to erect stairs of success for all students. This can be accomplished, ought to be considered, and should be implemented immediately.