Saturday, December 31, 2011

The NYT Online Learning Smear Campaign

Last week The New York Times published what can only be described as a “hit piece” against online learning and leading virtual education provider K12 Inc. Light on evidence and heavy on word count, author Stephanie Saul levels allegations of bloated class sizes, underpaid teachers, and unsupervised learning environments.

Online learning meets a wide range of student learning needs, is customizable, and is unrestricted by geographic boundaries. But the Times’s piece overlooks these advantages, failing to interview, for example, the student with disabilities who can work at his own pace or the student in a rural state who would never have had access to AP physics or Mandarin Chinese if it weren’t for online options. Instead, Saul dismisses the benefits that virtual education holds for so many students.
The growth of for-profit online schools, one of the more overtly commercial segments of the school choice movement, is rooted in the theory that corporate efficiencies combined with the Internet can revolutionize public education, offering high quality at reduced cost.

Tom Vander Ark, a director for the International Association of K12 Online Learning, writes of the Times’s article:
The sensational barrage is against K12, the online learning provider, but it really isn’t about the company. It’s the shift from print to digital, the shift from place to service, and the emergence of the private sector as an important partner in the delivery of public education.

The backlash from the Times is not unlike that from education unions, who view online learning as a direct threat to their power. But while the Times and the National Education Association may lament the growing availability of choice in education, families are fighting for more school choice options, including online learning.

Online learning is certainly not for every student. But the principle behind it is: At its core, this is a movement about choice. And that’s why opponents have reacted so vehemently to it.

The existing public education system, practically devoid of choice for millions of American families, is the antithesis of what online learning has the potential to produce: an education tailor-made for the individual student.

Thankfully, changes in education financing (which include permitting dollars to follow children to the school of their choice) and rapidly advancing technology have made better educational options of a family’s choosing within reach. And many families have already made this choice.

The Pacific Research Institute’s Lance Izumi writes about the opportunity online learning is providing children in National Review Online and highlights a video of Rocketship Academy, a blended learning school that leverages online learning in combination with the traditional classroom. Out of 3,000 low-income schools in California, Rocketship is the fifth-highest-performing.

Rocketship’s performance is consistent with findings released in 2010 by the U.S. Department of Education. In a meta-analysis of more than 1,000 empirical studies on virtual learning, it found that “online learning has been modestly more effective, on average, than the traditional face-to-face instruction with which it has been compared.”

Every day, the customization of education is evolving as more and more online learning options proliferate and state education leaders work to free resources to help increase access for families. The shift toward online learning is a shift in the delivery of education. It’s a guarantee of access to educational opportunity and a giant leap toward providing a vast array of options for families.


The SkillForce experience

By Lord Dannatt, Chief of the British General Staff, 2006-2008.

Over the past four or five years, we have become accustomed to seeing pictures on our television screens of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines doing difficult, dangerous and often heroic things on behalf of our nation, in Iraq and Afghanistan. We may not have always agreed with what they were being asked to do but since about autumn 2007 we, as a nation, have been both vocal and generous in our support for our servicemen and women, and their families – long may this continue.

However, Service people start off in life as citizens like the rest of us – they grow up in a community; they then choose to spend time in the uniformed military ranks; and ultimately they return to the civilian community whence they came. But on their return, they are not necessarily quite the same people. The training, the experiences and the lives that they have led have had a transforming effect – for some more than others.

It is this realisation that has made SkillForce, one of the Telegraph’s Christmas appeal charities this year, the dynamic organisation that it is today. SkillForce recognises that the shy or awkward, fit or gangly young recruit coming to the barrack gate has, in nine cases out of 10, been transformed into a confident, disciplined and well-motivated young person who is prepared to do their duty, especially so if well led and inspired. SkillForce has made its main focus the export of this positive attitude from the military into civilian life.

I first came across SkillForce in its early days nearly 10 years ago when I was asked to give away the prizes at a secondary school in a small town deep in rural England. I prepared myself for a fairly modest experience. But almost immediately on arrival, I was told in glowing terms by the head teacher of the tremendous impact on the school that the SkillForce volunteers had had.

Previously, classes had been held back by disruptive students, who either had no desire or no motivation to study, to the detriment of all. The SkillForce team of ex-Service people had taken out of class those who had no apparent interest in learning and given them completely different experiences. They had been offered the chance to learn practical skills, have fun and appreciate the value of being in a team.

When reintegrated into the school their attitude to learning, while not on a par with Einstein, was nevertheless sufficiently positive that they began to acquire a basic education. This had come about thanks not to highly trained educational psychologists but because a bunch of former Regular and Territorial Service people had cross-applied the skills that they had acquired in the Armed Forces. That experience, for me, defines what SkillForce has become.

In the aftermath of the costly campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a sizeable cohort of young people who might have thought that the best part of their working lives would be in the military, but the circumstances of the battlefield have dictated otherwise.

Whether injured by physical or psychiatric wounds, they want to continue to apply what they have gained from their military experience to everyday life around them. The nature of their injuries means that further service in the Armed Forces is not an option, but they still want to contribute what they have acquired. It is this spirit that is at the heart of SkillForce. It is often said that you can take someone out of the Army (or, equally, the Navy or the Air Force) but you cannot take the Army out of them. That spirit remains.

The Government has come to understand the unique spirit that inhabits those who are serving, or who have served, in the Armed Forces. It has written that spirit into law by including the Armed Forces Covenant in the new Armed Forces Act. This has placed a specified task on many government departments to look after our Service people, their families and veterans, possibly even promoting the meeting of their needs above those of their civilian counterparts on occasions.

However, I think the Covenant also implies an invitation to those who have served, and who will now be looked after very well, to continue to contribute what they have learnt in the ranks to those around them. SkillForce is a wonderful model and example of just how to do that. What SkillForce offers will not suit everyone, but it brings a resource and a need together in a most beneficial way.

Like everything today, a programme such as this costs money – more than the Government can afford, and less than SkillForce needs to meet its ambition – but the benefits are multi-faceted and hugely deserving of support. I salute the Telegraph titles for recognising the value of what SkillForce can contribute to our society, and I thank readers for their generosity in supporting this most worthwhile cause.


British education chiefs' £500 payout to a teacher hurt restraining a pupil cost £60,000 in legal fees

Education bosses ordered to pay £500 to a teacher injured while restraining a pupil were landed with a legal bill of more than £60,000 for that single case.

This example is one of the most disturbing discovered as a Daily Mail investigation revealed a growing ‘compensation culture’ in the classroom.

Freedom of Information requests disclose that councils across England are being bombarded with claims from teachers, often for trivial injuries.

But, in many cases, the compensation payments are dwarfed by the legal fees run up by solicitors.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that teachers, often backed by their unions, are taking on no-win, no-fee lawyers to bring even the most speculative claims.

Last night ministers were urged to clamp down on the practice amid warnings it was having a ‘chilling effect’ on schools and other public services.

Our survey suggested that councils paid out an estimated £6.7million as a result of claims by teachers last year. But for every pound paid as compensation, another £1.25 went on lawyers and legal fees.

In one of the worst cases, North Lincolnshire Council paid £500 compensation to the teacher hurt restraining a pupil, but the authority also had to pay a bill for costs of £61,464.

A spokesman said fighting the claim in court had led to a big drop in the payout because of ‘contributory negligence’ but acknowledged it had resulted in much higher legal bills.

In another case, Wirral Council, Merseyside, paid £2,000 to a member of school staff who stubbed their toe on a box but then faced a bill for costs of £14,300.

Walsall Council in the West Midlands paid £1,500 to a teacher who suffered a strain falling over at school but had to pay £14,888 in costs linked to the claim.

In Southend-on-Sea, Essex, the council sanctioned a £13,500 payout to a teacher who was assaulted by a special needs pupil yet the bill for legal costs was £75,800.

In Dorset, a school employee was awarded £1,650 after slipping on posters left on the floor. Legal costs totalled £11,000.

In March, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke unveiled proposals to reform the no-win, no-fee system. But last night, Tory MP Philip Davies said ministers may have to go further. ‘This is becoming a massive problem,’ said Mr Davies. ‘Taxpayers’ money we can ill afford is being diverted from frontline services to fund a growing army of lawyers.

‘The Government has to find a way of scaling back this compensation culture. That will require clamping down on the activities of no-win, no-fee lawyers. ‘It is quite wrong that people are able to pursue claims – some dubious at best – without any risk to themselves. ‘This problem is not limited to the education sector. It is having a chilling effect right across our public services.’

John O’Connell, research director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: ‘It’s particularly frustrating that lawyers are ramping up charges way above the pay-out itself.

‘Sadly there is a growing compensation culture. It’s disappointing that big payments are often made for seemingly little more than everyday accidents, wasting taxpayers’ cash and making staff paranoid about carrying out their jobs.’

In total, 130 of the 152 education authorities in England responded to a survey about cases in the last year. They revealed the total of compensation and costs was £5.8million. When estimates for the other 22 councils are factored in, the overall total of successful compensation claims and costs comes to £6.7million. There were just over 400 successful claims for compensation, with the average cost to councils of £16,600 each.

Yet of that cash, the injured teacher collected £7,300 while legal fees amounted to £9,300.

David Bott, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, accused councils of pushing up fees by refusing to settle claims earlier. ‘The remedy is for defendants to put their own house in order. They need to stop dragging their heels admitting liability and agreeing settlements,’ he said.

But Government sources said councils were right to fight unjustified or excessive claims.


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