Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Budget Cuts, Disruptive Innovation, and a Solution for Public Schools

Two years ago, when my art teacher position at an alternative high school was looking like it was slated for the budget cut slating block, I started to grow concerned about the financial future of public education and what it means for the realities of the classroom. We have seen the cost of educating a child rise every year faster than the rate of funding for schools. As a result every year we see class sizes increase, more programs cut, and less money for classroom budgets. It was about that time that I was turned on to the concept of disruptive innovation in education made popular by the Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen.

That spring my art teacher position indeed was cut due to no fault of my own. When I started looking for work, uneasy about the future of our traditional public schools and unsure about the long-term stability of online or virtual schools I decided the most intelligent option was to diversify my professional activities. I took a full-time job as a technology integration specialist for a traditional brick and mortar school and a part-time position with an online charter school.

Over the past year I heard the same old budget issues raised at my full-time day job. There are warnings that programs might be cut and "extras" will need to be examined scrupulously before we spend the money on them. At the same time my online position was thriving. By the end of the year, evidently, my class numbers for the virtual school had grown to where my position was nearly full-time there as well. By fall of this year the virtual school had to split my position, giving a full-time position to the person they hired to take over my bustling classes. Then, just last week I saw that the Oregon branch of Connections Academy became the single largest high school in that state. What is going on here?

The cost of educating a child in an online setting is exponentially less than that of educating a child in a brick and mortar school. With a virtual school you don't have to pay for building expenses, one teacher can manage a lot more students because they don't have the same classroom management issues to deal with and most mundane tasks can be aggregated. Personalization of learning is much easier to do in the online school as well.

Now, not every student is equally suited for online learning. I strongly believe there is still a place for the consistent face to face interaction that brick and mortar school provide. To be successful online, a student must have the self-motivation to work through assignments and lessons without a teacher present and must have a positive support structure at home. Students who lack one or both of these things would benefit more from a learning environment where this kind of motivation can be provided.

My growing concern:

In every scenario I see, especially with the current economic crisis, doom is spelled for the fate of traditional educational settings. If we keep going the way we have been going students are going to leave to enroll in virtual schools and class sizes, programs deemed "non-essential" in the traditional school will be cut and those who teach "essential" courses will see enormous class sizes. Why don't we see a stronger push against virtual learning from our traditional schools? I think teachers are tired of fighting for increased funding, they don't see a solution to fight for, and many see the benefits virtual learning bring. The only argument against virtual schools that I hear over and over again is over a concern for lack of social interaction. But we need to examine and ask ourselves, "What are schools for?" There is the Jeffersonian idea that schools are supposed to prepare students to be members of our society and then there is the Hamiltonian idea that schools are to prepare students for their careers. Neither aim is greatly addressed with the issue of social interaction. And to address this issue, my online students know each other, they have friends, and their social groups outside of school more positively fulfill this role than brick and mortar schools ever did. So what about the fate of traditional schools?

Doomsday Scenario:

  1. We are seeing more and more foreclosures on homes, taxes on which are the source of public school funding.
  2. Housing crisis, coupled with the subsequent economic meltdown means very little money for schools.
  3. Only Language Arts, Science, Math, and Social Studies are left after cut backs.
  4. Class sizes are in the 50+ students per teacher.
  5. Schools forced into 4 day week to save on transportation and heating.
  6. Students have to supply their own textbooks.
  7. No extra curricular activities.
  8. No field trips.
  9. Teachers have to work more years before they can retire.
  10. With 50+ students in one class, the only manageable teaching strategy is lecture hall style direct instruction.
  11. Meanwhile, while class sizes are still at 50+ in the virtual school, each student's lessons are personalized and easy for the teacher to manage.
  12. With fewer costs associated with online education there is money for extras such as field trips and extra curricular activities.
So, what is the answer:
  1. Let virtual schools grow and become the new mainstream schools.
  2. Traditional public schools need to transform and become more like our alternative schools or area learning centers.
  3. We need to abandon the bell schedule and view our teachers not as people who teach classes but as expert resources within the organization.
  4. Student learning needs to be personalized. This can be done by assigning students an adviser who works with the student to develop a learning plan.
  5. Part of this plan could be taking core, specialty, or advanced classes online.
  6. Invest in face to face course offerings that are done better in person than online (art, theater, dance, music, physical education, industrial technology, etc.).
  7. Teachers who do not teach courses described in #6 split their time between advising and teaching online.
  8. Only probationary students (those who fall behind) need to show up every day. For the rest, school is a place they go for some classes or to use the school's resources.
  • By cutting the arts, physical education, industrial technology, and extra curricular programs we are eliminating from our brick and mortar schools what they do best! All other content areas are better served by virtual schools.
  • The survival of our traditional schools depends on a merger between the virtual school and the traditional school and an investment in the very programs everyone is cutting.
What needs to happen:
  • State Education policy has to be revised either to state that all students can be served by an ALC or traditional schools can offer classes as project-based so they are not held down by seat-time requirements that are outdated and tied to the antiquated notion that we need to prepare students to punch a clock.
  • Training in distance learning pedagogy needs to be required of all pre-service teachers and all teachers whose license is up for renewal.


jhegna said...

Excellent Blog! Are you wishing you would have taken the full time virtual position?

Carl Anderson said...

That option is still on the table. Right now I am happy with my current employment arrangements though.