by Ken Gorrell, Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Another week, another news story about a public school failing its mission: “High school accused of massive grade-fixing scheme” screamed the headline in the New York Post.
The opening sentence set the scene: “Teaching kids takes so much effort, staffers at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn have found a quicker way to fix persistent failure rates, sources said: Just let them pass.” To paraphrase the old saying, be careful what you measure, you might get it.
In this case the measurement was the dropout rate. To reduce it, schools could find innovative ways of reaching at-risk students or focus on closing education gaps to bring failing students up to minimum requirements. Instead, this school – and from a review of similar stories, other schools as well – committed academic fraud using so-called “credit recovery” programs to replace failed coursework.
These programs, such as Plato used in districts in New Hampshire, don’t provide the learning experience that a high school diploma is supposed to represent. At John Dewey High, students were awarded academic credit for watching “Jurassic Park.” These students may not be smart, but they aren’t stupid: They dubbed the program “Easy Pass.” But the government’s measured targets were met: In 5 years the school’s graduation rate jumped from 52 to 74 percent. Success, redefined.
So why would I support an expansion of this scam? Because of what it represents: acceptance by the public school establishment that academic credit can be earned through computer-based activities outside the traditional classroom. If an at-risk student can use credit recovery programs to earn enough credit to graduate with a diploma, why not expand the program – without the fraud and low standards – to all students? Why not use technology to provide expert instruction and verifiable learning in a variety of subjects, and finally abandon our 19th century public school model?
Businesses invest in technology for very specific reasons tied to cost reduction, product improvement, and service expansion. In each case, labor requirements – a major cost driver – change, as technology replaces some people while creating new job categories for others. Banking and healthcare provide good examples.
Remember banking before ATMs, Direct Deposit, and online banking? Lots of tellers, lots of waiting in line on Friday afternoons. Does anyone want to go back to that? As our healthcare system added technology, outcomes improved significantly. Would anyone want to be treated for a dread disease today using 1950s-era medical technology? But in public education, technology in the classroom hasn’t changed the costly labor model or improved outcomes.
The Wall Street Journal pointed out two years ago, “The nation spends an estimated $15 billion annually on salary bumps for teachers who earn master’s degrees, even though research shows the diplomas don’t necessarily lead to higher student achievement.” A highly unionized public sector labor force that receives compensation based on time in service and degree attained rather than demonstrated competency resists the kind of changes required to connect technology with technological advances. It does, however, know how to meet erroneous measures of “success.” Which brings us back to the credit recovery scam.
If the education establishment can promote non-traditional, technology-driven ways to get students through the wickets of earning a diploma, it cannot object to using similar methods to provide all students with instruction in any subject. Want to learn a foreign language? Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur are two programs, designed by experts, with proven track records in language instruction. Why provide pay and benefits for master’s degree teachers at each school who can only teach one or two languages, when technology could provide better instruction in dozens of languages at lower cost?
The same question can be asked of many subjects taught in middle and high schools. Whole courses of instruction are available, designed and delivered by experts in their field, accessible through web technology. A single subject matter expert and professional educator could reach thousands of students more efficiently and effectively – at lower cost – that thousands of credentialed teachers in thousands of schools. Freeing students from the rigid, old-style classroom structure would also give them more course offerings, greater flexibility, and would permit many to graduate sooner.
Public school costs continue to grow faster than our economy and our incomes. That situation will not change until we disrupt the status quo by effectively employing technology in ways that will make the education establishment uncomfortable. The “credit recovery scam” provides an example of non-traditional course delivery that should be improved, repurposed, and expanded. It should eventually replace our outdated public school model.