Online education: latest in a long line of 'improvements'

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and California Gov. Jerry Brown are both determined to improve education for all their states' schoolchildren.

In Oregon, Rudy Crew is the state's first chief education officer, with broad powers over every element of education from preschool to college. He recently suggested that online education is a cost-effective way of raising student achievement, that more technology may be better than more teachers. ("Enthusiasm does not equal success" The Bulletin editorial in Mail Tribune, Feb. 16, 2013)

In California, Brown used his January State of the State speech "to propose a new K-12 funding formula that would provide more state aid to schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged students ... an additional $3,500 per child." He said that "Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice." (Education Week, Jan. 30. 2013)

I wonder whether either man's proposals will create equal educational opportunity and success for all our schoolchildren, or whether they will join other well-intended and costly failed policies of recent decades.

My teaching career began in 1964 in the Los Angeles Unified School District. As a law student in the 1970s, I saw that school district and countless others use mandatory busing to integrate their schools. Enormous resources — time and money — were spent on busing children hours each day in hopes of raising student achievement. The controversial policy, challenged in the courts, slowly ended.

One positive outcome was the rise of magnet schools. Educators collaborated to create public schools that would motivate families to enroll and integrate their children voluntarily. I taught algebra at a magnet school, the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. Standards were high and peer pressure supported school success among secondary students from widely varying neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many magnet schools are flourishing today.

But winds of "reform" blow steadily. In the 1980s and 1990s came cooperative learning, fuzzy discovery math and whole language. As a math teacher I watched the redesign of curriculum, promoted by "experts" working closely with textbook publishers. Traditional, content-rich coursework was replaced with "new math" approaches embodied in costly new textbooks.

Thus elementary students were given calculators and not required to memorize multiplication tables and other math facts. Secondary school students took years of "integrated math" rather than algebra I, geometry and algebra II. Students worked in "cooperative learning groups" to discover techniques for solving problems, rather than having math concepts taught by teachers and practiced by students in logical sequence. These costly reforms have been abandoned.

Then came President George W. Bush's federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Every public school would be held accountable for raising student achievement as measured on standardized tests. Failure to reach certain test scores and graduation rates would result in punitive measures against teachers and schools. The premise was that every child could be treated as a widget in a factory and molded to perform uniformly, regardless of any personal distinguishing factors.

The textbook publishers merged with the standardized testing industry, creating and scoring the mandatory tests and building databases on all our children. I'm surprised there's so little public concern about these extensive and permanent databases.

A decade after No Child Left Behind became law, President Barack Obama's administration has granted waivers to 34 states, including Oregon. They no longer face the severe penalties set for 2014. But here comes the next education experiment: Common Core Standards in mathematics and English/language arts, imposed on every state as a way to mandate academic achievement for grades K-12. The winner will be the education technology industry, already shifting into high gear.

Education Week has been reporting on the challenges school districts face in teaching and assessing Common Core Standards, as education technology companies foresee rising profits. But when high-tech teaching involves specialized content, who controls that content — techies or teachers? Imagine every state, pressured to meet Common Core Standards, facing issues such as "intertwined" content and technology components — a key issue in a recent lawsuit.

One Education Week article, "Competitions Connect Tech. Startups With Educators" (Jan. 30 issue) reports: "There isn't enough interaction and communication between the stakeholders — educators, developers, investors, entrepreneurs and researchers. These groups simply don't talk to one another."

Note that educators become a small minority among those involved in this newest experiment. If Oregon pursues online education, how will content be determined and success be measured? If California allocates extra funding to disadvantaged students, will it buy teachers, textbooks or technology? Will either policy nurture high-achieving students to reach their full potential? Will education technology profits be justified by academic success for all our schoolchildren?

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught algebra for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools, and served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio.

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