Online Education and Seeing Her Flaws

When I first fell in love with online education my vision, which, I suppose, is normal at the start of any relationship, became exceptionally myopic. I’d develop some crazy fun and brilliantly educational lesson in Moodle, my students (most of them) would stay engaged, become rock stars, and ace every short cycle or state test placed in front of them. Never mind that when a sub brought them to the computer lab OR when I assigned online work for home the quality and quantity of work would generally be crap…or, more accurately, satisfy the “lowest common denominator” of a passing grade. We were in love. And when you’re first in love you ignore the blemishes and annoying habits.

Technoeducational utopianistas are still in love. These are people I enjoy reading and/or listening to like Clay Shirky, Salman Khan, and those founders of Udacity. And, while I sometimes find myself in their camp (it’s fun to envision educational revolution brought on by Moore’s Law), it doesn’t jive with what I’m seeing in the classroom or in the data. The more I read into their messages (and you can likely lump Arne Duncan, most left/right politicians, our president in this group) that technology will be the saving grace to poor performing students, the more I’m sensing a cop out to the real reasons why students aren’t performing well on those state tests: Poverty.

Freddie deBour has a series of posts on the “need for educational realism”. They’re great posts. Go read them (here and here for starters) for the full arguments and observations – but some gem quotes are as follows:

I’ve tried all number of ways to do that outside of class meetings– marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration– and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

I will have lost some of you with that verb. “Drag them! How presumptuous! That’s so insulting.” I assure you: no, it’s not. No, it’s not insulting to use the word “drag” to describe educating undergraduates. I promise you it’s not. Of course, there are in most classes one or two or three students who are both very bright and self-motivated. They’re wonderful to work with. But most students require a frankly endless amount of pushing, pulling, cajoling, motivating, and yes, dragging to competence. Some actively resist. I’m not complaining: this is what I love to do, and it’s why they pay me. I signed up to be a compositionist knowing that many, both within and outside of the university, see nothing to respect in the discipline. I did because I love teaching people to write and love researching ways to do it better. I’m just relaying reality, in context with an education media that simply doesn’t want to hear it: our college students are not an army of young autodidacts who are pursuing knowledge out of a love for learning. They just aren’t. They’re here, in very large measure, to collect a degree that they identify as being a largely or purely economic instrument. Who could blame them? That’s what their culture is telling them education is for: making money. So they proceed rationally from that premise.

Freddie deBour

The central, simple, most repetitive message of education (starting at much younger grade levels) is to make money is very true. I’m not going to make a value call on that message (perhaps a future post?). But that message has many implications on society and what society we become.

DeBoer continues:

So maybe you can see why I am so deeply frustrated with the Clay Shirky vision, which is really just the consensus view, and pretty much Obama’s major vision for the next era of the American economy. It’s a common saw: the next stage of American abundance requires all of our workers be educated, it’s too expensive to teach them in the conventional academic setting, and so we need to replace the physical university with online colleges, staffed by adjuncts teaching many sections of huge classes. And not only will we be erasing the very notion of individual instructor attention, we’ll be particularly targeting the most vulnerable, most difficult to educate students, the ones who now either never make it to college or drop out at huge rates. This is the perfect expression of an educational discourse that has no connection to the reality of what most schooling is like for most students.


Educating students takes a TON of work, especially when the students you teach are have no educational context from their families, are dealing with extreme poverty at home, and often time facing a bar that, realistically, they’re not all going to be able to jump. That’s not to say they won’t learn or can’t learn (I want to be exceptionally clear about that), but the vision being articulated by many education “leaders” is lacking, as deBour says, educational realism.

The people pushing this vision, tellingly, are almost exclusively people who have little to no connection to the day-to-day work of educating undergraduates in basic skills. Either the people arguing for this are journalists and pundits who have never educated, or they are deans and administrators who haven’t taught undergrads in 20 years, or they are celebrity intellectuals who barely teach and when they do, teach at elite institutions where only the most equipped to succeed are present. The greatest division in educational discourse today is not best understood as progressive vs. neoliberal or something similar. The greatest division, at all levels of education, is between those in the world of media and policy who assert that we have the ability to make miracles happen, and the educators who are actually out there, day-to-day, trying to get students to standards those students cannot meet. We can begin to let our policy discussions reflect on what’s actually happening in our actual schools, or we can continue to engage in pleasant fantasy.


Lots of ideas and concepts to mine here. More to come.

Real Talk for Real Teachers

The Washington Post completed an interview with Rafe Esquith, the rock start, super teacher of Hobart Elementary School in Los Angles. Esquith wrote a recently released book titled “Real Talk for Real Teachers.” I’m quickly adding it to my to read list. The interview had a number of great quotes, some that I’d like to highlight.

On why he wrote the book

I want young teachers to understand what they are getting into. They are swallowing this line that they are going to save every kid. And when that doesn’t happen they are crushed and they give up.

I am not saying this to be conceited, but I’m a very good teacher and I want them to know that I fail all the time. There are factors beyond my control. But I have to understand there are issues of family and poverty. Sometimes even if you do reach a kid it’s not going to happen in the year you have them.

On the big differences in education today

The obsession with testing. We always gave tests, but basically now it’s the entire day. Basically if it’s not on the test don’t teach it.

Also, the economy has declined, families are hurt and I deal with many more family problems. Some of them are really difficult… Most of the parents I deal with try hard for their kids. One of the myths is that poor kids have parents who don’t care. That’s crap. They care.

On Teach for America

They [TFA corp members] are in my room all the time. Good kids. Nice. Bitter joke: TFA really stands for ‘teach for a while.’ Like all other teachers there are some great ones who are there for the right reasons who want to make a difference and some who want to pad their résumés. I certainly don’t think anybody can be a great teacher in five weeks. I hope this book helps them think a little bit about what they are getting into.

They [TFA corps members] are obsessed with test scores. It becomes all about this: If you have a kid who gets a 75 on a test and then the kid gets an 85, you are a good teacher. My wife didn’t fall in love with me because of my test scores….  They [TFA leaders] are incredibly defensive about hearing an alternate idea. What’s said is that they are constantly throwing data and money showing they are successful. But they are really not. They are no more successful than any other teachers and if you read their blogs a lot give up in horrible frustration

Esquith has also has the very astute observation that students don’t get enough sleep today and that affects their ability in school.

One way to improve a school’s test scores

You could, you know, find “smarter” students from a neighboring school and import them.

The board did agree, over the objections of some parents, to move about 100 gifted and talented students from Glen Oaks Park to Merrydale Elementary this fall to try to increase that latter school’s test scores.

The proposal to move 100 gifted and talented students this fall from Glen Oaks Park Elementary, a C-rated school, to nearby Merrydale Elementary, an F-rated school, generated some heat Thursday.

In seriousness though, the solution bares some thought. Albert Shanker suggested that if you really want to improve performance in public schools, make sure you don’t have high concentrations of poverty in one school – sort of a desegregation based on economic means.

Put another way, if you see your peers performing at a certain (higher) level (or valuing education in a certain way), your more likely to rise to that level of performance and internalize those values..

The Cursive Handwriting Debate

…which, in my opinion, is really a variation of the argument “I learned this when I was in school and I turned out fine.”

North Carolina may be in the process of passing a bill (called “Back to the Basics”) that would mandate mastery of cursive by the 5th grade and memorization of time tables.

When Rep. Hurley introduced the bill, her stated justification to mandate cursive writing instruction included the claim  that PET scans show that your whole brain works when you’re doing cursive, but that “only half” of your brain works when you are doing manuscript, and that your brain “doesn’t work” when you are keyboarding.

Note: It would appear that supporting research on such claims is pretty slim.

What do I think?

Cursive is pretty. If students (or their parents) want them to learn it, have them practice at home. It can be fun (it can also be used as a form of discipline). From a Historian’s perspective I believe there are definite benefits in being able to read cursive (as I look lovingly at the Declaration of Independence).

But writing in cursive? Hardly anyone does that any more (professionally or personally). And there’s a reason for that: It is no longer is an answer to a problem.

At parent teacher conferences at the beginning of the year I learned that my daughter had to complete a unit on cursive writing.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s part of the standards,” she said while rolling her eyes. “We’ll get all of them to write their name and call it good.” (Her teacher is AWESOMELY funny and pragmatic).

Fortunately (in this case), cursive isn’t part of the Common Core so it will cease to be an issue.