May 1, 2009

Charters beat the pants off Florida Virtual School on the disruption scale

Maybe it's my training as an historian, but book titles such as Disrupting Class bring out my inner Larry Cuban. Disrupting Class author Clay Christensen points out that he tried to respond to Cuban substantively throughout the book, and the Florida Virtual School is a case in point, both for Christensen and also Bill Tucker. Yet I think the reason why the Florida Virtual School (FVS) both was in danger from and survived a legislative threat was not because it was tremendously disruptive but rather the opposite: it has matched parents' and students' expectations of "real school" to a remarkable degree.


A few times this month, education reporters contacted me, asking about the attacks on FVS, and all I could reply was that it smelled like a typical Florida legislative back-room deal to help someone's friend (or friends): require counties to start virtual-school programs, then the next year cut funding to FVS dramatically and also restrict its mission (thus feeding the county programs--presumably outsourced to for-profit entities--a bunch of guaranteed students). I don't know why that came unbidden to mind; maybe 13 years of watching the state legislature honed my preexisting cynicism? As in many other areas of schooling, it looked like someone saw money in public education and tried to sidle up to the legislative trough.

But that did not come to pass, in large part because a broad coalition of interests pressured legislators to keep the existing mission for FVS and to minimize the cuts (relatively speaking), essentially removing the class-size funding for FVS but (I think) not much else. There are a few notable elements in this battle that readers of Cuban (and David Tyack and Mary Metz) would recognize:

  • The different purposes people identify in using FVS--or the flexibility in the construct "distance learning" and a specific institution (FVS)
  • The way that defenders of FVS used language that reflect a perceived "normality" in online schooling: students, teachers, classes, credits, graduation, honors, etc.

In this context, last month's policy brief by Gene Glass and the response by Cathy Cavanaugh and Erik Black are far closer to Cuban than to Christensen. Glass's recommendations focus on accreditation, teacher certification, curriculum, and assessment. And Cavanaugh and Black agree. Wow, those sounds like standard school policy issues to me!

With one important exception, my own experience as a teacher and parent tracks with all of this. Students in my online course behave in ways similar to face-to-face students: many work very hard, some try to see what classroom (or Blackboard) deals they can cut, all need a certain amount of scaffolding, and their performance varies. My daughter has used the Florida Virtual School, and while the work is nominally independent, she has homework with due dates, times when she must speak with the teacher directly, and she receives grades. If her high school had independent-study options, her experience would probably be no different except that the conversations would be face-to-face and the homework submitted in person rather than online.

The one caveat is the one I have written about before: what/where is dramatic engagement online? There may be nothing wrong with online education as a vehicle for massive multiplayer online parallel play (i.e., independent study), but that's not the face-to-face dynamic. There may be nothing wrong with classes organized around online bulletin boards, and I have been told by several friends how that can generate the type of drama and thoughtfulness that concerns me, and maybe the relevant way to frame the issue is to think about the conditions necessary for such engagement. But enough about me: the fact that I have one generic quibble after approximately a decade of teaching online courses, my daughter's experience, and watching the policy environment in Florida suggests how much I think about online education in terms of the standard structure of schooling.

Maybe I'm not trustworthy on this because of my own biases. So maybe I'm an awful Luddite-prone troglodyte with no imagination, but I've had a blog for most of the decade and edit the English-language side of an online journal. Maybe Gene Glass is also an awful troglodyte, but he started the journal I now edit.

So take from this what you will, but I do not think that the FVS is an example of "disruption." As Bill Tucker's essay in Education Next suggests, FVS did not compete with public schools, private schools, or home schooling but complemented all of them. Maybe that's disruptive, but it continues a long history of supplementation of the school program. Anyone who attended religious schools outside public-school hours should understand that, as well as anyone who participated in private chess clubs, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Campfire, various volunteer organizations, martial classes, private music groups, and so forth. Or, to take another example, those who have watched television programs with explicit educational purposes in mind. If Clay Christensen is right that online education is fundamentally disruptive, he should be able to point to the disruptive effects of another technology with some educational content: television. Please don't get sidetracked into the "how television ruined young minds" debate. This is about the relationship between explicitly educational television and formal schooling. What happened in that case was not competition or disruption but complementarity and hybridization. The spread of VCRs happened while I was in high school, and I saw Cuban's classic hybridization in process: in selected cases, teachers recommended that my classmates and I watch a program, or they taped a program to show in class for a specific purpose. 

There are four historical cases of potential disruption of schooling routines in the past century, and here I mean honest-to-goodness challenges to the legitimacy of public schools: private commercial schools in the early 20th century, federal youth programs in the Great Depression, Mississippi Freedom Schools and segregation academies in the 1960s, and charter schools in the past two decades. In the first two cases, the challenges were to high schools, and administrators responded in different ways. In the early 20th century, urban public high schools were in the midst of developing tracking, and while there were few challenges to the urban high school after the demise of academies approximately half a century before, one did: the private school teaching commercial skills such as typing and shorthand. Since young women were beginning to see pink-collar jobs as a reward for one or two years of secondary schooling, these commercial schools were practical and valuable. Harvey Kantor explained what happened next: public schools began offering courses to recapture the students. I suspect that the courses were more expensive than most other classes (and that would be consistent with the costs of most vocational education), but the point was to recapture the legitimacy of being the place where adolescents should be in school. How disruptive was that? I think that's arguable: it probably did more to confirm school officials' belief in the rightness of vocational programs than to push them off where they would have driven high schools otherwise. But that is a case where competition (if for legitimacy, not dollars) truly drove public-school behavior.

Edward Krug has the short canonical version of public-school officials' reactions to federal New Deal youth programs: AIIIEEEEEE! The criticisms of the National Youth Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and some other programs focused on federal-state relations, but there is no doubt that school officials saw those programs as direct threats to public high schools at a time when teenagers were flooding schools as the place to spend adolescence. In the end, it was not the criticism of the educators that ended the programs: conservative Congressmen of the late 1930s were uncomfortable with federal work programs in the first place and ended the programs, at probably the first point that they could (in part with the excuse that WW2 and economic recovery made the programs obsolete).

I would probably not put the Mississippi Freedom schools and segregation academies in the same boat for any other question, but in one sense you could say that they both challenged public constructions of race and schooling. In the case of the freedom schools, operators challenged segregated schooling; in the case of segregation academies, operators challenged desegregated schooling (even the mildest desegregation). In several places (such as Jackson, Mississippi), segregation academies successfully siphoned off children of segregationists, and that success in some places drove public-school behavior for desegregation. In Tampa, as my colleague Barbara Shircliffe has documented, county school officials closed the historically all-Black high schools because their primary concern was keeping white children in the schools. There were both financial reasons for doing so and also political reasons, the same protection of legitimacy that drove educators to expand vocational schooling in the early 20th century and criticize New Deal youth programs in the 1930s.

Charter schools have represented a different type of challenge to public schools. At this moment, from a long-term historical perspective, I think charter schools are primarily challenges to urban school systems. Cities are where charters have repeatedly captured a noticeable minority of enrollment, and while there are some isolated attempts to "capture" charter opportunities for other purposes, you could legitimately say that charter schools are disruptive in several cities. Whether that changes the construction of formal schooling inside the classroom is an interesting and entirely unresolved question, but there is no doubt that in some cities such as New Orleans and DC, there are now several sectors of schooling that are public in the senses of both public access and public funding. I would not be able to say whether the relationship between those sectors right now is either complementary or truly competitive, and part of my uncertainty on that score is probably with the organizational leaders of the "public" public sectors (Paul Vallas in New Orleans, Michelle Rhee in DC).

This professional judgment is not about the comparative worth of either the Florida Virtual School or charter schools, though my impression of FVS is consistent with Tucker's. But historians commonly argue about continuity vs. discontinuity, and when someone uses the word disruption, it immediately starts up my mental circuits in that area. So this is an historical judgment about systematic effects. And here's the bottom line: if I were to pick between the Florida Virtual School and urban charter schools as disruptive, I'd have to pick charter schools.

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Tags: charter schools, distance learning, Florida Virtual School, online education
Posted in Education policy on May 1, 2009 5:20 PM |