Everybody thinks they know more about teaching than teachers do.

14 12 2011

By now, you’ve almost certainly read the epic takedown of the virtual secondary school company K12 in yesterday’s NYT.  This is exactly the kind of day-to-day mechanical information about how virtual education operates that I’ve been trying to describe in this space for the last six months or so and it’s incredibly damning.

Rather than do a lame recap of a long article, I just want to pull at one thread from the piece that I found both particularly interesting and quite new, namely the idea of parents as teachers:

Parents, called “learning coaches,” do much of the teaching, prompting critics to argue that states are essentially subsidizing home schooling.

“Learning coaches?”  To me that’s like trying to run a university with classes staffed entirely by work studies. Not TAs, work study students. Undergraduates. Yet the fact that K12 has that name for parents demonstrates that this kind of free labor is built into their business model.  Face time with actual teachers apparently isn’t valued at all:

For most students, attendance is recommended but not mandatory at what are called synchronous sessions — when they can interact online with the teacher. A new grading policy states that students who do not turn in work will be given a “50” rather than a zero. Several teachers said assignments were frequently open for unlimited retakes.

The obvious implication from the article is that some parents do the assignments for their kids. Even if they don’t, the argument that all companies like K12 provide is subsidized home-schooling is impossible to escape from this anecdote:

In a neighborhood teetering on the edge of middle class, Ms. [Denita] Alhammadi has converted her living room into a classroom. Two desks are for her children, Romeo, 13, and Yasmine, 8. Another is for Ms. Alhammadi, a former Army supply officer who is also studying online, through Kaplan University.

Within weeks of attending a K12 information session, Ms. Alhammadi had become parent and teacher, wrapped into one. She spends as much as six hours a day as the official “learning coach” for her children.

I mean no disrespect for any particular parent here, but if the test scores of the schools cited in this article mean anything it’s that professional teachers do a better job teaching students than parents do. Therefore, it’s not crazy to assume that the more direct contact hours you have with a living, breathing teacher, the more a student learns. This should really come as no surprise as teachers actually have to go and get advanced degrees to teach kids while parents don’t.

Yet everybody still thinks they know more about teaching than teachers do.  Parents, politicians, edtech entrepreneurs – so many of them have no respect for any teacher’s professional expertise. Teacher salaries in the United States are just the most obvious manifestation of this systematic belittling. The rush to replace teachers of all kinds with computer programs is another.

I write this despite having had no formal training in teaching whatsoever myself.  I’m a big believer in learning by doing, but it took me many years of teaching for me to feel as if I had any command of the practice whatsoever. Seriously, it’s not at all as easy as it looks. Try doing it through a learning management system with students you never meet in person and I’m guessing it’s going to be even harder than usual. Six hours a day of videos, web-surfing and drills might not be enough to make up for the difference.


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5 responses

14 12 2011
Jonathan Dresnerj

Actually, I have a great deal of respect for teachers. What I lack respect for – and the reason we are now homeschooling – is an educational system that wastes *months* of the school year with testing, that can’t provide more than 50 minutes a day of attention for gifted students (and restricts that supplement to about 2% of students), that is increasingly deskilling the teacher’s job with scripts and software packages, that outsources science fairs to the PTA, etc, etc.

I may not be a better classroom teacher (especially for 4th graders; I know my limitations!) but given how much “support” we were already having to do, turning to full-time homeschooling wasn’t a big leap.

14 12 2011
Farah Ng @ Broken Penguins

I had never heard of these schools until I read the NYT article. And I was appalled! The biggest problem in traditional schools is that teachers are already overloaded with too many students. These schools take the teacher out of the room and give them double the students. I probably would have dropped out too.

15 12 2011
Historiann

I haven’t seen this story, Jonathan–thanks for the link. I’ll go do my homework, but I think in the end that I will just say WORD. You and I have a mind-meld going on about online “education.”

I will just note that not only are these models for online ed drafting on the unpaid labor of parents, I’m sure that most of these parents are in fact mothers, and not fathers. So there’s a gendered angle to this exploitation, too. (Surprise!)

15 12 2011
Historiann

I have read the story now. WORD.

I’m just amazed by how thoroughly K-12 has gamed the system, from lobbying and Astroturf organizing on up (or down?) I agree with the MSU Proffie (I believe it was him) who said that for-profit online ed is doing to education what the subprime mortgages did to real estate. It’s a race to the bottom, friends.

31 12 2011
wombat

I consider it nothing short of a miracle that the public school picks my first grader up on my street and transports him to school. There, they socialize him, feed him, make him exercise, teach him to read and write and do math, etc. He is then safely delivered back to our street. It is fantastic! Amazing! I couldn’t even get the kid to draw me a damn picture before he started school. I bow down with awe and wonder to our public school teachers.

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