COVID19 and the E-learning Trojan Horse

High school teachers across Ontario spent the entire fall and winter negotiating season in a bitter fight with the Ontario Tory government using one day strikes to focus the Tories attention. One of the key issues was compulsory on-line or e-learning. The government wanted four compulsory online courses as a graduation requirement. The teachers unions wrestled them down to two courses with an opt out clause. The courses are still the default program. The parents must take action to opt the student out. What was at stake in this battle of Titans? 

The government excuse was online compulsory courses were necessary to prepare students for a tech driven future. The hidden agenda is that conservatives, and many liberals across many nations are pushing online education for a series of anti educational reasons. First, they believe it is cheaper. They expect they can raise student teacher ratios with canned online instruction. Secondly, it is a step in the privatization direction. Private interests can develop the courses, the platforms, and even do the teaching. Third, it is designed to reduce the power of the teaching profession, and in particular, teachers’ unions. Who needs to pay professional teachers with ‘course-in-a-can’ education? The result of a shift towards online education, particularly in the hands of conservatives, is fewer teachers with less professional influence and, naturally, lower wages. This is not to mention the lower quality education and God awful results of online education.


Let's not be naive. In the USA, there are powerful forces  backed by Tech billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs widow, Michel Dell, Reid Hastings (Netflix), and even non EdTech billionaires like the Walton Family (Walmart) who are involved just to break unions. These billionaires want to privatize some or all of education, receive the government funding, and run it through charter or voucher schools. Of particular interest are online charters which stand to make mega billions by paying fewer teachers and building and maintaining few buildings. High school and postsecondary students would be totally online. They realize elementary kids can’t be home alone so their experiments, like Rocketship charter schools, involve dystopian classrooms where each student has their own cubicle and is still glued to a computer screen for canned instruction. A teacher or education assistant might circulate and troubleshoot. 


Rocketship Charters


Terry Moe is a right wing political science prof at Stanford. One of his specialties is education politics and education unions. He summed up his aspirational hopes for EdTech at a “Reform” conference. “Online education finally gives us the tools to break the hold of the teachers’ unions.” 


Since 2006, Big EdTech has been proclaiming “brick and mortar schools are over”, “Links will replace books by 2015”, “with MOOCS - Massive Open Online Courses, all courses will be online and free.” The problem for these right wing, privatizing “reformers” AKA disrupters,  is that these dreams have crashed and burned. Online has never reached its potential and the case can be made that it has failed miserably. 


The US army kept data on recruits' educational background and discovered the ‘graduates’ of online education failed military training badly compared to students from regular education. Digital books rose for a bit, then collapsed. How many Kobo readers do you still see out there? Testing on America’s biggest tests NAEP, SAT, ACT demonstrated that test takers from online schools fared badly. Two decades of research has shown that F2F education is vastly superior. A META analysis conducted by the OECD, the PISA sponsors, noted, those who take online courses fare worse and those who take online courses every day fare significantly worse. Reboot Foundation found in 2019, that the most recent data confirmed a negative correlation between online education and PISA scores. Simply put they concluded “more tablets = lower scores.” 


One of the most famous disasters was University of Phoenix. Where did all those ads go? The USA federal government had to investigate them on the basis that nobody ever graduates, so they soak up money, mainly government cash, from veterans who almost always drop the courses but Phoenix always keeps the money. Phoenix U was driven out of Canada as well. 


Big EdTech is well aware of these results and finds them enormously frustrating. Their dream of a totally EdTech future was like sand falling through their fingers. They noticed that, except for a niche market of Distance Learning, the model was broken. In many studies, up to 94% of students who enroll in online education either fail the courses or simply dropout after falling behind. Just as online education was down for the count, along came COVID 19. If nobody really wanted online education, it was failing badly but suddenly there is no choice. F2F education is closed, online is back in business. The billionaires see COVID19 driven homeschooling as the golden opportunity they have been waiting for. Too bad for them, it is just as likely to put the last nail in their coffin. 

Here in BC we get the American channels out of Seattle. They are full of ads for private, online “free” courses and full enrollment programs. How can a private school offer free education you ask? When the government gives them public money is the answer. 


The teachers naturally opposed online education except in its non-compulsory, niche role in true distance education for example, a student in a small rural school who needs Physics for their university admission but the school cannot offer it. Consider a 22 year old, a few credits short of graduation who does not want to return to a regular school. 


The main teacher objection, however, is that online education is vastly inferior to face to face (F2F) education. A simple Google search will show that online education has a disastrous dropout and non-completion rate. Most students cannot keep up, and most high school students still lack the self discipline to handle online education. 


It is telling that the Ontario Student Trustees Association, representing this tech savvy generation, came out strongly against compulsory online education. The key issue is compulsion. I reckon that compulsion would lead 100% naturally to attempt online education. Without compulsion, that figure would probably drop below 10% hense the fight over compulsion. 


One of the very best things about public school teachers is their love for the job and their devotion to their students which is why the resistance to Emergency Distance Education has been limited Sadly, one of the worst things about public school teachers is their naivete. Teachers may inadvertently be falling into the trap of facilitating the tools that lead to their own demise as professionals and as unionists. 


Time for some serious rethinking. 

These links might be of interest.


Ontario announcement


Why online education doesn't work the research MIT Harvard


Massive privacy concerns

rocketship lab .jpg

2. The crown jewel of corporate disruption, Washington DC turned out to be a total fraud. In 2007 Michelle Rhee became chancellor. Charters expanded rapidly, billionaires poured in $120 million, high stakes testing ruled, and was used to evaluate teachers, the entire disruptor play book was thrown at DC. 

The entire edifice crumbled in 2018 when one school claimed 100% graduation rate up from 57% one year earlier. NPR and right wing news fawned all over DC until the teachers blew the whistle. Sixty % of the graduating class were chronically absent, and ineligible to graduate. The FBI investigated, the city ordered an independent audit showing a total fraud. Across the city the same pattern emerged. Only 42% were on track to graduate but 73% were graduating. Rhee was soon out and the entire disruptor scam dealt the movement a body blow. Testing on a huge scale proved to be a total failure as a tool to improve achievement. Please note fellow Canadians. 

3. The NAACP The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is the oldest existing civil rights organization in the USA focussed on black advancement. Anger about exclusionary policies of charter schools was bubbling up across the country. The NAACP held nationwide hearings and a motion was moved that there be a moratorium on new characters until they were held to the same transparency and accountability rules as regular public schools. The motion passed. 


The disruptors had tried to make the case that charters and vouchers were ‘the civil rights issue of our time’. They played on Afrrican American dissatisfaction with the results of public schools but the NAACP motion punctured the balloon of privatization as a civil rights issue. For those who thought that the NAACP was your grandfather’s  civil rights organization, Black Lives Matter, BLM the younger, more militant face of black civil rights took the same position. What killed black support was the classic “creaming” scam of private education, charters made it difficult to enroll and found ways to quickly expel all disruptive or low achieving students. After that, attempting to claim that they are successful since the remaining students were from the same neighbourhood as the local public school which was required to take all students. 


4. The corporate disruptors believed that evaluating teachers by the score of their students would improve the quality of teaching and, by extension the quality of education. This idea was demolished ironically by a Bill Gates funded, independent study. The RAND Corporation and the American Institute for Research released a study of three public school districts and four charter school chains. The projects neither improved student achievement nor did they weed out ineffective teachers. It was a total failure. 

5. The massive, mainly red state walkouts by teachers, 2018,  dramatized the fact of widespread underinvestment in public education. Funding had been cut ostensibly due to the 2007-8 financial crisis but by 2018 it had not been restored. Americans realized that only mass action would persuade state legislators to restore funding. Echoing the NAACP teachers demanded a moratorium on future charter schools. These strikes, effectively changed the national channel from privatization to the underfunding of public education and even to the real cause of dismal underclass results - poverty. 


6. Until Trump’s election there was widespread Democratic Party support for charter schools. Corporate Democratlc luminaries  like Cory Brooker, Mike Bloomberg, Bill Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel, and many others were heavy backers. Even Obama allowed his education secretary, Arne Duncan to become a super charter promotor. Then a perfect storm hit charters (and vouchers). On top of the above failure of testing, teacher testing, NAACP and other failures, Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Her aura was one of the billionaire incompetent, religious zealot, far right winger, in over her head. She was a heavy promoter of vouchers and charters for all the conservative reasons ( ideology, privatization for profit, but mainly as a work around that allowed public money to support religious education). Many Democrats began to see the contradictions. If these far right zealots plus Trump himself are for privatization, why am I for it? 

The Disruptors (ironically a popular term in private business with Uber and Air B+B, ) are very unpopular terms with public school parents. The very last thing they want is educational disruption. Biz types seem oblivious to this. The Disruptors tried to showcase their “success” stories like New Orleans, where Katrina’s aftermath and disaster capitalism created a 100% charter district, and Florida where former governor Jeb Bush and his acolytes  had been running amok with vouchers and charters for years. Both proved to be Potemkin Villages. Researchers and NAEP results soon demonstrated that they were total failures. 


Privatization failed for a perfect storm of corruption, (the media is full of endless stories of failure and outright financial chicanery. Segregation was promoted by charters. This is segregation of every kind, race, religion, income…). The evidence began to show that the funding for charters came right off public school budgets. This shifted the thinking of public school supporters. Their past view of charters shifted from a benign cancer to a more  malignant variety. 


Every time the Disruptors, and especially their billionaire backers were proven wrong, they shifted focus to another complete failure like a kitten with a ball of yarn. They have the attention span of a gnat. You can google some of these failures, as there are just too many to document. Common core, small schools, parent trigger laws, teacher testing, state takeover of failing schools, and more. 


The Disrupter narrative, is that the “failure” of American education can be laid at the feet of teachers, teacher unions, “tenure”, and their supporters. This narrative suffered a fatal blow when the American Statistical Association concluded that teachers are responsible for a minimum of 1% and a maximum of 14% of the variability in test scores and that most opportunities for improvement were not with teachers and classrooms but in system level conditions. 


At the end of the day, even the OECD, a Paris based, capitalist oriented, think tank  responsible for PISA testing has been telling the USA for years that their weak results are due to POVERTY and exacerbated by the fact that poverty is concentrated. This leaves the billionaires with a quandry. They want an educated workforce for our new world of 5G, AI and a tech driven future but they don't want to pay for it by having their vast wealth taxed, to alleviate the poverty that is the root of all American failure. It seems the adage “you get what you pay for” doesn’t register with the 0.01% of billionaires. 


Lessons for Canada


Some provinces like BC already offer up to 50% tuition support for privates schools. This should be capped at today’s rate and begin a phase out at 10% less per year over a 10 year period. Alberta has a few charter schools. They are not a problem yet but every single one means less money for regular public schools. They also need to be capped and phased out. Ontario has full funding for catholic schools,  an historical anachronism. As the water gets low in the watering hole, the animals look at each other differently. If the catholic priesthood does not destroy this system first, the system will be looked at with an increasingly different lense due to advances in human rights, science, education, urbanisation, and the growing free thinking movement. Religious education will not survive too much longer or be justified in light of financial pressure. Quebec and Newfoundland abolished their religious based system. Quebec opted for a language based English French system. This makes far more sense. 


Finally, Canada must look at, not only the failure of privatization by charters and vouchers but also the total failure of all disruptive reform south of the border. Testing has zero value added to the education system. It is costly and there is evidence from U Texas at Austin, that it increases the dropout rate by demoralizing marginal students. 


Our American sisters and brothers let corporate disruptive education reform get away from them and build up a head of steam that looked undefeatable until the bodies started to float to the surface. The disruptors were hoisted on their own petard. The standardized testing they demanded turned on them and showed, by their own standards, vouchers and charters have no value results for all their disruption. 


Canadians must avoid privatization and begin to wind down standardized testing. The latter obviously has no role to play in educational\improvement.