Banish the image of a classic American classroom from your mind—chalkboard, desks and all. The future of education has arrived, and next-era classrooms look like, well, call centers: students seated at individual corrals, some with headphones on, being taught and drilled on quadratic equations while a teacher monitors their progress from behind her own computer. With such individualized learning, students can absorb and master subjects “tailored to their pace and needs.”
That was the picture painted by billionaire businessman Rupert Murdoch when he spoke last week at a two-day conference in San Francisco hosted by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education reform outfit. Murdoch was there, he admitted upfront, as “a businessman” ready to move into the education market. Murdoch’s News Corp. has been quietly developing virtual-learning and technology-driven products for K through 12 schools, and with his address Murdoch made his first large public splash into an arena he’s valued at $500 billion. For entrepreneurs big and small, American public school reform has become a prime business opportunity.
And with help from lawmakers nurtured under Gov. Bush’s legislative guidance, it’ll soon be easier to pick up some of that cash. In an era of declining state budgets and in the face of an urgent educational crisis, Bush argued, now is the time for policy that allows schools to educate their students with cutting-edge digital programs that teach, test and track the progress of school kids for a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools. Bush urged the 750 attendees, most of them state and local school superintendents, education entrepreneurs and lawmakers from state legislatures, to pave the way for schools to adopt digital learning initiatives.
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Conveniently, Murdoch and other businesspeople entering the education sector were on hand to sell their wares.
“Digital gives us the means to transform the dismal status quo—and to do it quickly,” Murdoch said during his address. “And it can give school districts a way to improve performance in the classroom while saving their taxpayers money.” Already, Murdoch noted, private companies like Rocketship Schools serving a predominantly low-income, student of color population in San Jose, Calif., have posted stellar test scores using this very model.
The day before, the local teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco, picketed outside the conference, the sidewalks simmering in the hot autumn sun, with signs that read: “Public education is a right, not a profit center!” and “What kind of country bails out banks and closes schools?”
But in the cool, air conditioned meeting rooms of the hotel—where teachers were noticeably absent—startups and the world’s largest corporations were pitched as the salvation of America’s schools. And in the hands of the nation’s most aggressive state lawmakers and reformers, it became an entirely seductive line of reasoning.
High school students at the privately run charter Carpe Diem School in Yuma, Ariz., for instance, have been able to exceed state standards for reading and math. And they’d done it at an average cost of $5,300 per student per year, a significant discount to the national average, which hovers around $10,000. The school’s “digigogy,” in the words of its founder Rick Ogston, involved what’s called blended learning, a mix of digital instruction and traditional in-person classroom instruction.
The head of Rocketship Education, whose schools Murdoch praised in his speech, said the organization of Rocketship classrooms is the foundation of its success in northern California schools. “We all know that when students learn things that are developmentally appropriate for where each of them are, they learn things much faster than if you teach to the middle,” said John Danner. Danner explained that digital learning—together with a flexible bell schedule, focused parent and community engagement and intensely focused professional development of its teaching staff—had allowed its predominantly low-income student body to post fantastic test scores.
These efficient startups operate without the expensive overhead and cumbersome bureaucracy that stifles change and innovation in traditional public schools, lawmakers argued. Teachers at most charters are neither unionized nor guaranteed tenure. Their leaders portrayed these privately run schools as lean, sharp education machines.
But it wasn’t until Sal Khan, the founder and sole faculty member of the rapidly expanding online education group Khan Academy, took the stage, that the seductive appeal of digital learning finally hit home for me. Khan narrated the story of the Academy’s genesis; what started out as long-distance tutoring for his cousin Nadia became a series of wildly popular YouTube lectures, which became a million-dollar startup being tested in wealthy northern California neighborhoods.
Khan explained that his programs, which allow students to learn “at their own pace, and on their own time,” have successfully taught algebra even to kids “from the other side of El Camino.” He is now developing education programs for broader adoption, with the backing of corporate-education philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates.
Khan imagines upending the traditional classroom structure so that students watch videos at home, and do their homework at school where teachers can assess and zero in on their weaknesses. Computer programs drill students on one concept at a time, refusing to let them advance until they’ve mastered it. In the Los Altos schools that have been experimenting with this model, Khan swore kids didn’t want to leave math class when the recess bell rang.
And soon, I realized I was falling under Khan’s spell. He’s an excellent salesman—charismatic and witty and a wonderful storyteller. I started thinking I might want to take up calculus with his YouTube videos, the first surprise, and then quickly wandered into even more challenging territory. I began to wonder: Is there anything inherently wrong with corporations running schools? So we privatize the education system. If corporations are able to do it successfully, is anything wrong with it?
Perhaps the best weapon the market-based reform movement holds is that no one has yet articulated a broadly compelling response to these questions, one that speaks to the urgent desire of individual parents to get their individual kids educated and the equally urgent need of cash-strapped states to pay for it. So far, there’s only one organized group that’s explicitly countering the privatization of U.S. schools, and they’ve yet to craft a rebuke that can overcome both the rhetorical appeal of the pro-business approach and the anti-public sector worker climate that’s gripped the nation. Teachers unions—whose members face ever harsher sanctions under clumsy and testing-focused accountability measures, and who are losing collective bargaining rights and job stability—have been portrayed as selfish and unwilling to change. That may not be the truth, but it’s certainly the dominant narrative.
At the conference, the villains were named explicitly as public educators—or, when haranguing panelists wanted to be more nuanced, as the unions that represent educators. Teachers were consistently portrayed as simultaneously lazy in the classroom and extremely powerful outside of it, resistant to change and ill-equipped to handle the challenges of educating students in the 21st century. The assembled legislators, school chiefs and entrepreneurs often referred to teachers unions as “the other side,” and themselves as the underdogs.
But while teachers are not winning the messaging war, they and other critics of market-based education reform have got data on their side. New studies show that digital learning companies have inflated their claims of success. Charter schools on average do no better than their often comparatively underfunded traditional public school counterparts. Over and over, studies have found that pay-for-performance schemes do not, in fact, make teachers more effective in the classrooms. Critics of punitive teacher accountability measures and market-based reform argue that social factors—poverty, access to healthcare, family joblessness—have a significant influence on a student’s academic achievement, and that reforms that refuse to acknowledge that reality are doomed to fail.
But these days, the debate is not about any of these things. At its heart, it’s really about fundamental ideological differences over how traditionally public institutions ought to be run and who ought to be responsible for nurturing the nation’s students: publicly run schools accountable to voters and their communities, or private companies accountable primarily to their stockholders. As Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett said on a panel with other state school chiefs, “We don’t believe we can run schools in the state. We develop contractual relationships with those who can.”
The previous afternoon, just steps away from the hotel ballroom, a protester held aloft a poster asking a question she likely never got an answer to: “The 1% ruined our economy. Why should we trust them with our schools?”
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