Decaying Buildings and the Rise of Digital Education


“DeVos doesn’t think we should be funding school buildings as much as students.” The line caught my eye as I scrolled through social media this weekend. How could it not? I’ve been working hard over the past year to try and convince other education activists that the true endgame of the reform movement is to make school buildings obsolete. So I listened to the video of DeVos speaking to attendees of the Magnet Schools of America National Policy Training Conference in Washington, and there it was at timestamp 11:40: “I don’t think we should be as focused necessarily on funding school buildings, as much as we should be having a conversation around funding students.”

DeVos, being from Michigan, surely knows the deplorable conditions students in Detroit face daily trying to access a free and appropriate public education. And Detroit is not alone. Parsons completed a Facility Condition Assessment for the School District of Philadelphia last month identifying $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance. Over $1 billion of that total involves life safety, code compliance, health hazards, accessibility, and security issues. Think about that. We are asking vulnerable children and school staff to enter buildings that are not safe five days a week, while at the same time the Secretary of the US Department of Education is proclaiming we should not be funding school buildings.

This week I also came across a legislative forecast for Educational Savings Accounts (vouchers) prepared by Jeb Bush’s group Excellence in Education. The info-graphic accompanying the report indicated that my home state of Pennsylvania was one of 13 states identified as having a 75+% chance of implementing ESA legislation in the coming year. Our schools are already in an incredibly precarious financial position after years of austerity budgets and onerous debt service. The combination of intentionally unsafe buildings and ESAs will likely end up pushing more families out of the public school system with devastating consequences for those who remain.

Following on the “don’t invest in buildings” comment was another doozy from Jonathan Swan’s conversation with DeVos featured in Axios “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.” And while some chuckle over that last line, I’m pretty sure she’s talking about “Learning Ecosystems” which exist in concept right now, if not execution. The decentralized cyber-based education model with community drop-in centers would be consistent with her support of market-driven choice and tech-based educational content delivery, as well as her disdain for neighborhood schools being anchors in their communities. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable DeVos noted, “One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the Internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished.”

As new state ESSA plans roll out, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about personalized learning – learning that can take place any time, anywhere, at any pace. Even now, Knowledgeworks, a major promoter of the learning ecosystem model, is tracking personalized learning provisions emerging in state plans on an interactive map. Personalized learning is consistent with competency or proficiency-based education, and DeVos’s home state of Michigan has implemented many CBE policies. Acceptance of competency-based education and virtual schooling is key to the implementation of learning ecosystems. It will be impossible for reformers to fully separate education from buildings and teachers until they eliminate “seat time” requirements where students must go to a physical school building for a set number of hours or days per year. The report “Competency Based Education: An Overview for Michigan’s Superintendents” goes into considerable detail on this. At the same time reformers are working to get credit flexibility legislation passed, as they did in Ohio, that will allow credit for “non-traditional” learning experiences that take place online or “out-of-school time.” Ironically, it is the Carnegie Foundation itself that is working very hard to eliminate the “factory model” Carnegie Unit.

In 2013, the National Governor’s Association funded a study on credit flexibility for the Governor of Pennsylvania under the innocuous sounding title “Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning.” Much of the 32-page report is used to pitch competency-based education as well as cyber schools, which isn’t so surprising since NGA is behind Common Core State Standards and CBE. While the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit compiled the report, special thanks were given to Chris Sturgis, a consultant affiliated with Competencyworks. Competencyworks is a collaborative initiative of Ed Reform 2.0 interests. Their advisory board includes representatives of iNACOL, the Florida Virtual School, Council of Chief State School Officers, NGA, Knowledgeworks, Great Schools Partnership, Center for Collaborative Education, Nellie Mae Foundation, and Jobs for the Future.

It is important to note the role Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit played in shepherding along this report, because the truth is we should all be paying much closer attention to Pennsylvania’s Intermediate Units, and their equivalents in other states. See my related piece on Mass Customized Learning and Appalachian Intermediate Unit 8. The system of 29 Intermediate Units was set up in 1971. Each school district is assigned to an IU that provides services like curriculum development, professional development, educational planning services, and serving as a liaison to state and federal agencies. However the “about us” page of the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units website describes IUs as “entrepreneurial, highly skilled, technology-rich, and agile providers of cost-effective, instructional, and operational services to school districts, charter schools, and over 2,400 non-public and private schools. Additionally, intermediate units are direct providers of quality instruction to over 50,000 Pennsylvania students.”

So they are positioning themselves as technology-rich, cost-effective providers of instruction, are they? That sounds a lot like virtual schooling. And, in fact IUs across the state are busily setting up a shadow network of public cyber schools ostensibly to compete with cyber charter schools. Over the past decade public (non-charter) virtual schools have been set up and expanded nationwide, including: Florida Virtual School, Illinois Virtual SchoolNorth Carolina Virtual Public School and many others. In fact there’s a Virtual School Leadership Alliance that retains the consulting firm, Evergreen Education Group, to promote their interests. Some virtual schools cater to students who take ALL of their courses online, but most are also set up to accept students enrolling in a few courses per year.

The Capital Area Intermediate Unit, set up CAOLA, the Capital Area Online Learning Association in 2009. Today the association has 37 members, including 10 of the state’s 29 IUs. Course offerings are aligned with standards set by the International Association of K12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and cover hundreds of core courses and electives provided by vendors like Edison Learning, Apex Learning, Accelerate Education, Presence Learning, and Smarter Measure.

The Capital Area Intermediate Unit is cozy with iNACOL and in 2016 joined with them to co-sponsor the Mid-Atlantic Conference on Personalized Learning held in Baltimore, MD. iNACOL is a non-profit education reform advocacy group founded in 2003 to support growth of the virtual school movement. Supporters include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, all major players in the movement to privatize public education. As you can see below iNACOL’s board composition reflects the various elements of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda:

PA Intermediate Unit 13, also known as the Lancaster Lebanon Virtual Solutions Program, is a member of CAOLA. On January 31, 2017 they hosted Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee for a roundtable discussion on hybrid online learning. State Representative Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, facilitated the discussion, and among the day’s presenters were Ken Zimmerman and Collette Cairns, both of whom are employed by IU13 and have ties to iNACOL (the International Association for K12 Online Learning).

One of the lines politicians are using to try and sell the public on in-house (IU run) virtual schools is that it’s a great way for children to have more course options. The pitch usually focuses on access to elective courses that might otherwise be unavailable to students, courses like Chinese or Latin, but in reality, most virtual school offerings are core courses. For example, the Montgomery Virtual Program serves an affluent suburban county with the highest level of education funding in the state. The program offers over 100 courses in K-5 education through Connections Learning, which is owned by Pearson. With the exception of one or two offerings ALL of these classes should be available to students in a neighborhood school as part of a well-rounded curriculum. This is not about providing more choices. It’s about outsourcing education to online vendors like Edgenuity or FuelEd for financial reasons.

Let’s be clear, virtual programs, even if done under the auspices of “public” entities, will siphon students and funds away from neighborhood schools. These “public” online courses will be pitched as “better” than cyber charters, because some courses might employ local teachers – see the Open Campus PA program based in Lancaster. They will be pitched as a prudent cost-savings measure. They will be pitched as more transparent than corrupt cyber charters. They will be pitched as collaborative, “it takes a village,” a chance for districts to work together to share teaching resources. But we must recognize that IF we choose to participate in such ventures, we are ensuring that scarcity will remain a permanent feature of the educational landscape.

It will be a number of years before learning ecosystems are ready for primetime. While the various elements are being refined (ESAs, Blockchain/Bitcoin payment systems, skills badging programs, out of school time partnerships, universal broadband, and SIB/Pay for Success legislation), reformers are going to need to condition people to accept digital education as the new normal. Hybrid-Blended Learning will be a key tool during the Ed Reform 2.0 phase. People are still too invested in neighborhood schools to willingly buy into the ecosystem model where schools mostly disappear, replaced by a few community drop-in centers. Hybrid-Blended learning is designed to aid this transition, to gradually reframe people’s expectations about what public education is meant to be.

In 2016, The Center for Digital Education with financial support from Microsoft, Edgenuity, Insight, and Smart prepared a report called “Making Blended Work: School District Chief Academic Officers Sound off on Best Practices for Blended Learning.” Officials from 16 school districts, including Cheryl Logan of the School District of Philadelphia, provided input. It should be noted that our district had been looking into Blended Learning as early as May 2013 when it was the topic of a special Strategy, Policies, and Priority Meeting. Two years later in May 2015, the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia approved Resolution A-22 authorizing expenditures of up to $10 million on blended learning programs for the district between 2015 and 2018.

The quote below is taken from page 13 of the “Making Blended Work” report.

“Starting in 2014, the district (Cabarrus County Schools) identified its best high school and middle school teachers, doubled the amount of students those educators teach, cut the in-person time with these students in half and paid the teachers more to reach more kids and get the same results.”

Does any thoughtful parent or teacher really believe you can DOUBLE the amount of children being taught and reduce in-person instruction BY HALF and get the same results? Well, perhaps if you are only measuring data points, but that denies all the learning that takes place in relationship to one another. How can we knowingly sit by and allow this so called “personalized” blended learning model to usurp face-to-face instruction and the right to learn in a class of ones peers?

None of this is happening by chance. It is part of a much larger program to shift control of public education away from communities to financiers and technocrats. It’s very much linked to impact investing. Adopting online courses as a “temporary fix” to deal with austerity budgets is ill advised. Newsflash: IT WON’T BE TEMPORARY. Accepting stripped-down computerized services today will only normalize austerity and ultimately make access to a full-time human teacher seem like an unaffordable luxury. Once in place, funding for reduced class size, more human teachers, and a well-rounded offline curriculum will never be restored. We need to check the power of the Intermediate Units (or their equivalent in other states), organizations that are NOT accountable to local school districts, and we all need to take a deep breath before adopting any form of digital instruction that reduces the amount of time children have with human teachers. Meanwhile, my child’s school really needs a new roof.








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