The Deregulation of Education II: The Measures of Quality


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In 1937, F. Dean McClusky was asked to study why there had been a failure of commercial film makers to make successful educational films.  In McClusky’s report:  “Commercial interests have failed to grasp or to study the nature of instruction and the complexity of educational organizations.”  (Paul Saettler, 1990, p. 106).  It appears history will repeat with digital learning.

The “free marketeers” in digital learning must consider student-teacher interaction in their quality learning calculations.  Digital learning is not learning alone or “being taught by a computer,” the traditionalists view of new possibilities.

Recently, I attended a session, “ Fostering Quality in Digital Learning,” at the Virtual Schools Symposium.  The presenters were Bryan Hassel (Public Impact) and Seth Reynolds (Parthenon Group).  The premise of the presentation is that new delivery systems are possible in education.  Entrepreneurs are needed in education to organize resources for these new delivery systems that can be scaled to schools.  Further policies will be needed to bring these new systems into education.  However, it seems as though all the designs from the marketeers are based on price, price, and price.

In an earlier posting, I wrote about how the “ed reformers” are attempting to make education a marketplace through the “Common Core.”  Further I noted the entrenchment of the “traditionalists,” stating that we need pragmatic leadership to bring education into today’s realities and opportunities.

When I listen to presenters at meetings, I note their vocabulary.  Words define us, categorize us, show our limitless capacities, yet limit our imagination. Whenever the marketeers speak it seems to be with the language of the market, like “education space” or “product.”

The markeeteers’ most celebrated  example of this is Carpe Diem– a blended learning school with a professional entourage model in Yuma, Arizona.  Its costs are about 10% less than high schools in Yuma County and about equal to the average cost of all K12 education in the county (reference).  Comparison to national averages do not seem appropriate as its costs are not greatly dissimilar from its local peers.  Stop comparing Carpe Diem’s costs to the national average.  It does not help this digital learning movement.

Here are some items from my notes about the presentation:

  • Quality:  quality teachers  + technology. 
  • A teacher only gets 1 year of learning gain. 
  • There’s a limit to the  maximum number of quality teachers.  The number used in their conversation was 25%.  Twenty-five percent of all teachers are quality – outstanding teachers – and we will never be able to get more than that percentage. 
  • Because the number of quality teachers is limited we must find ways for them to interact with more teachers, perhaps up to 4-6 times more students than they now have.
  • Students have a “civil right” to good teachers.

During the session, the presenters appeared to discount the student-teacher relationship.  In my notes, I wrote, “they think the student-teacher relationship is a commodity.”  Later during the question period, a session attendee stated that her experience with online education was that the student-teacher relationship breaks down at a ratio of about 125:1.  The presenters were speechless, as if they have never thought about the teacher-student relationship.

After the session, I asked one of the presenters  whether some of the models they were exploring was like the physician who has several assistants, like a physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, physical therapist, and such.  My thought was confirmed.  I added that I only contact my physician when I need him or at some long term cycle.  He and his crew neither monitor my status daily or weekly nor initiate a conversation or merely send me an email that my daily and weekly stats look good and to “keep up the good work.”  Is the physician’s model of “on demand” service the model these folks are seeking?

This thought is supported by principles they presented:

  • Teacher candidates should be selected from the best high school students.
  • Teachers will be held accountable for students’ successes.
  • Teachers should have the authority to make change in student delivery.
  • There should be rewards.
  • Teacher can be responsible for more students.  (The language here suggests a professional entourage as outlined above with the “teacher” only seeing the most difficult cases and the “paraprofessionals” helping others.)

This is contrary to reports of success and what students are requesting.  In the online program where I previously worked, students gave us feedback that they wanted more contact with their online teachers.  At the closing student panel at VSS, the participants echoed the same:  they want more contact with their teachers.  Students want their teachers to get to know them.  The presenters need to understand the student-teacher relationship is essential to student success.  When relationships are commodities, they have no value.  Hassel and Reynolds don’t appear to factor that the student-teacher relationship is essential for student motivation; to appeal to a student’s better side; and to intervene when necessary.  They were speechless when the relationship statement was made by the session participant noted above.

The vocabulary used in the presentation suggests to me that the main ingredients of quality from these presenters are “productivity” and “lower costs.”  Quality = productivity; Quality = “lower costs.”

This is not to write that technology can’t be used to provide closer tracking of student progress.  At what expense?

Instead of criticizing the language used by the marketeers, let’s use their language to demonstrate how they are missing an important element of education:

  • In Tom Peters’ book In Search of Excellence, the author writes about a successful car dealer.  “He [the car dealer] doesn’t think statistically, but emphasizes that he has sold ‘one at a time, face-to-face, belly-to-belly’” (p. 158).
  • In former Southwest Airlines CEO’s book, Nuts, Herb Kelleher has a book section entitled, “The Commitment to Service Must Be Personal.”
  • Jack Welch writes, “A huge part of making your customers [loyal] . . . is meeting or exceeding their expectations, . . .” (Winning, p. 247).
  • Michael Dell, in Dell on Dell, writes, “We put a great deal of emphasis on what drove customer satisfaction, . . .” (p. 32).
  • In his book How to Become a Rainmaker, Jeffrey Fox states, “The first commandment of getting and keeping customers is to treat each customer as you would treat yourself” (p. 10).
  • In the recent book EntreLeadership, one of the most famous entrepreneurs of this age – Dave Ramsey, states that there are four steps at making a sale – qualification, rapport, education/information, close (p 167).  Working with students goes through similar steps – a relationship must be established.  Teachers work to “sell” students the importance of learning through their relationships.

Dell further states, “Our best customers are those we learn the most from, who teach us ways to add value beyond our existing products or services, and who challenge us to come up with solutions that ultimately benefit a range of other customers” (p. 158). 

The quotes could go on.  When your quality measures are “productivity” and “lower cost,” then you’ll sacrifice the customers and their views of your “product” in the “education space.” Students have told us what they want – teacher interaction.

It appears that the markeeters are forgetting about the student (customer) experience.  Required weekly, purposeful interaction between teacher or the teacher’s entourage and students won’t lower the costs to the degree they are seeking.  If the marketeers don’t pay attention then we will be back to 1937 — “Commercial interests have failed to grasp or to study the nature of instruction and the complexity of educational organizations.”