Portland Paper on a Digital Witch Hunt

A reporter who proudly proclaims “I’m an award-winning journalist with extensive global experience” appears to be panning for a Pulitzer from his perch in Portland.  His second hit piece in a week attempts to “expose the flow of money and influence” in Maine education.
Over the last 36 months, the editorial voice of The Portland Press Herald has careened from one political extreme to the other—from left to far right and back again.  It is obvious that this was an attention grab for writer Colin Woodward and a politically motivated hit piece for his paper.
His first hit piece protected parochial interests and trashed learning online based on the results of a union-backed “study.”  The rest of the world—companies, families, and the military—have shifted to learning online while education lags behind.  In a recent blog I noted a dozen examples of How Digital Learning is Boosting Achievement.
Maine has been a leader in access to technology, but most Maine students have only had access to the courses offered by their local school.  Why, when every student should be able to access every Advanced Placement course and any foreign language, would it make sense to limit learning opportunities to the school down the street?
In Better Learning Online, I acknowledged that some full time virtual schools have done no better than state academic averages because of some of the unique challenges they face:

  • Most students enroll late–65 percent says one national provider–and late enrollers perform significantly worse and withdraw at much higher rates than students that enroll on time.
  • Providers receive little or no information about a student, particularly trend data (i.e., a learning trajectory).
  • Online schools are often much larger and very diverse (i.e., it can be harder to make Adequate Yearly Progress with 5,000 students than 500).
  • Students not successful in a traditional setting enroll in online schools seeking an alternative. Districts complain about students returning from charters, but the same happens to online charters–11th graders with two credits show up and leave the enrollment records of the local school district.
  • New online students often perform very poorly (which may reflect prior achievement as well as new modality) and, as a result, the percentage of new students predicts performance.

Full time online learning is a great education solution for thousands of families but it isn’t for everyone.  Most students will benefit from a structured environment, integrated supports, and a blend of online and onsite learning.
Back to Colin’s crazy attack.  Maine has a great education chief, Stephen Bowen.  He’s a frequent speaker at national events.  Colin criticizes Bowen for an expense paid trip to a conference where he was a presenter.  It is customary for a conference to cover travel expenses for speakers.
Colin criticizes Bowen for seeking policy advice from The Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group I’ve worked with for two years.  In a process chaired by two governors—one Democrat, one Republican—about 100 bipartisan experts drafted a ten-point policy framework for the future.  Digital Learning Now! provides thoughtful guidance for what I believe is the most important transition in the history of education—the shift to personal digital learning.
Colin criticizes the Foundation sponsored Digital Learning Now! report card, “that had given online schools the widest leeway.” The policy platform does advocate for more full and part time options for students and families, but demands rigorous authorization and strong accountability.  Again, when it’s possible to give every Maine student access to interesting courses and great teachers, why would anyone want to limit options?
Colin criticizes the recommendation that high school students take at least one online course—a guideline based on the fact that nearly every student will be learning online after high school whether they are in the military, on the job, or in college.
The hit piece is complete with a distorted infographic that attempts to indict the governor and chief.  The Foundation for Excellence in Education holds an annual conference that, like most, is supported by a combination of registration fees, sponsors and donations.  The infographic conflates conference sponsorship with the foundation’s policy and advocacy work that is primarily supported by national foundations.
State education agencies decimated by budget cuts are expected to lead the shift to digital learning with little policy support and limited program management capacity.  Third sector support is critical in, what I believe is, the most important transition in history.
Let me back up and paint the picture that Portland paper missed:

  • We need to dramatically and quickly increase the percentage of American young people prepared for college and careers.
  • We are in the midst of inventing much more productive learning sequences for students and far better workplaces for teachers with better support and more attractive career options.
  • Most schools will blend online and onsite learning well before the end of the decade.  Productive uses of technology will leverage teacher talent–this is about better teaching not less teaching–and improve working conditions and earning potential for teachers.
  • There is a role in education for private enterprise in producing and scaling innovation. Most big advances in education will result from public private partnerships–the right capital doing the right job.
  • Most relationships are local, most learning opportunities are global.  We need new governance models that build communities but don’t limit learning.
  • Performance matters. Public delivery systems should create incentives for participants and providers aligned with desired outcomes. Academic growth trajectories should be measured for every student. Schools and providers should perform at high levels or lose the right to public support.

The story we should be talking about is creating quality learning options at scale.  Investigative journalism is important to our democracy but this was an example of something different and dangerous—a slanted political and personal agenda.
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The blog first appeared on Huffington Post

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Rob Darrow

I think the other thing the reporter missed was the fact that the graduation rate for high school students in Maine is 72.3%, which is below the national average (http://www.edweek.org/apps/gmap/details.html?year=2012&zoom=6&type=1&id=ME). Seems like they would want to have more alternative schooling options, not less.

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