No profit left behind

Pearson, the British publishing behemoth,  sells billions of dollars of textbooks, tests, software and online courses in North America, reports Politico‘s Stephanie Simon in No profit left behind.

“Public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective,” writes Simon.

Its software grades student essays, tracks student behavior and diagnoses — and treats — attention deficit disorder. The company administers teacher licensing exams and coaches teachers once they’re in the classroom. It advises principals. It operates a network of three dozen online public schools. It co-owns the for-profit company that now administers the GED.

Pearson’s interactive tutorials on subjects from algebra to philosophy form the foundation of scores of college courses. It builds online degree programs for a long list of higher education clients, including George Washington University, Arizona State and Texas A&M. The universities retain authority over academics, but Pearson will design entire courses, complete with lecture PowerPoints, discussion questions, exams and grading rubrics.

In peak years, the company has “spent about $1 million lobbying Congress and perhaps $1 million more on the state level,” writes Simon. But, she adds, the National Education Association spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress in 2013.

I think this is the key point:

“The policies that Pearson is benefiting from may be wrongheaded in a million ways, but it strikes me as deeply unfair to blame Pearson for them,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. “When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills.”

The real question is whether schools need the products and services they’re buying from Pearson and its competitors. As long as Pearson has competitors, it can’t jack up its prices or lower its quality without losing business. For example, it’s losing GED customers like crazy because the new test is too expensive and too difficult. I predict they’ll announce a new new GED or lower prices to regain business.

Unbundling college

Higher Education Is Not a Mixtape, writes Derek Newton in The Atlantic. Entrepreneurs predict college will be “unbundled,” letting students assemble a variety of online courses to produce a lower-cost degree.

However, students (and their parents) “shop for schools, not for professors,” Newton writes.

The consumer choice is for the bundler — the brand, the label, university — and not the individual course content. . . . the 2012 UCLA annual survey of incoming college freshmen found that nearly two-thirds said “a very good academic reputation” was “very important” in their decision on which college to attend.

Prestige is expensive, especially if it includes living in a dorm.

The upper-middle-class want the college experience as one big bundle, but colleges that serve working-class people will be unbundled, predicts Daniel Luzer in Washington Monthly.

. . .  since 1980, inflation- adjusted tuition at public colleges has more than tripled. People are seeking out online education because the United States increasingly fails to makes real college affordable to working people.

Unbundling could help people seeking job skills and credentials. That’s a large group. But Luzer has a point: Four (often five) years of college is now a luxury good, even as we tell young people it’s a necessity.

Disrupt and personalize

Online learning can personalize instruction — and make it less boring — says Michael Horn in a Reason TV interview. Horn is co-author of the new book, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.

Cheating for college scholarships

Over 14 years, a community college basketball coach and academic advisor helped hundreds of athletes meet NCAA requirements by cheating, reports Brad Wolverton in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Most needed academic credits to transfer from junior colleges.

Coaches, parents or “handlers” hired “Mr. White” to help basketball, football and baseball players — and golfers.

A few are now playing in the pros.

Players “took” online or correspondence classes.

For some players, he says, he did their work outright. For others, he provided homework answers and papers that the students would submit themselves. At exam time, he lined up proctors and conspired with them to lie on behalf of students.

Mr. White made sure students didn’t do too well. Earning all A’s and B’s would have drawn suspicion.

Several Adams State classes were so easy, Mr. White says, he hardly needed the test keys.

One question on the final examination for Math 155, “Integrated Mathematics I,” a copy of which Mr. White shared with The Chronicle, asked students to find a pattern and then complete the blanks in this series:

5, 8, 11, 14, __, __, __, __

Many of his clients couldn’t have qualified for a college scholarship without his help, says Mr. White.

A different way to do college

Minerva is a selective liberal arts college without a classroom or campus, reports PBS NewsHour.

The dormitory is on one floor of this old apartment building Nob Hill. Students will spend the first year here, and then the subsequent six semesters living and studying in six different cities around the world. Next year, they head to Buenos Aires and Berlin.

But the professors don’t go with them. In fact, they can be anywhere, including home, because they see their students exclusively online, via a proprietary software platform called the Active Learning Forum. It fosters a face-paced, engaging, seminar-style class. No lectures allowed.

Minerva has partnered with the Keck Graduate Institute, part of the Claremont University Consortium, to gain accreditation.

Ohio charters show mixed results

Ohio charter schools work well for low-income blacks, but overall do worse than district schools, concludes a new CREDO study.

CREDO estimates that low-income black students receive 22 additional days of learning in math and 29 days in reading when attending a charter instead of a district school. Cleveland charters also are outperforming the district.

Stand-alone charters do better than those run by non-profit and for-profit charter-management networks.

Charter middle schools perform well, notes Education Gadfly. Charter high schools do not, perhaps because some specialize in “dropout recovery.” Online charters also perform poorly.

Online credits are easy, worthless

When Darren’s math students can’t pass a course, they earn high school credit for an easier online course, he writes on Right on the Left Coast. It’s “educational malpractice,” he argues.

. . . students can pass those online courses, even though they wouldn’t stand a chance of passing the “same” class at our school.  Our school district knows this, too, and still approves such classes for credit.

. . . Our school district also has a computerized “credit recovery” program.  Like “the miracle of summer school,” students who have failed classes — in many cases, failed so many that they’d never graduate on time were it not for credit recovery — can make up their classes via online programs.

. . . I exaggerate only slightly:  a student can read a couple things on the computer screen, answer a couple questions on the next screen about what they just read, and voila! Instant education.

Students can make up semesters of failed classes in a month or two, then receive a high school diploma, writes Darren. “We’re selling meaningless credentials.”

Hacking higher ed

Online “competency-based education” (CBE) is a faster, cheaper, more flexible way for adults to earn college credentials valued by employers, I write on Mozilla’s new e-mag, The Open Standard.

CBE lets students progress at their own pace. They may watch mini-lectures, read, work through exercises, chat with virtual classmates, consult with a faculty mentor – or apply what they’ve already learned on the job, in the military or through independent study.

“The idea of divorcing learning from seat time – rewarding people for mastery – has radical implications,” said Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America.

To earn credit, students demonstrate mastery of a “learning objective” by taking quizzes and tests, writing papers or completing a project. Those who haven’t fully mastered a competency don’t get a B or a C. They keep trying until they learn it.

Most programs work with employers to design the competencies, so students — nearly all are working adults — will have the skills employers are seeking.

President Obama has endorsed the idea. The Education Department is experimenting with student aid for CBE students.

Western Governors University was the pioneer, but now state universities — the University of Wisconsin and, just this week, the University of Michigan — are offering online CBE programs.

Educating without ‘Bricks and Mortar’

Online learning doesn’t have to be second best, argue Jeffrey Scarborough and Raymond Ravaglia in Bricks and Mortar: The Making of a Real Education at the Stanford Online High School.

As a seventh grader, my daughter learned algebra through Ravaglia’s Education Program for Gifted Youth, an early distance-learning venture. It got her out of a badly taught “new new math” pre-algebra class.

In MIT’s MOOC, everyone learned

MOOCs — massive open online courses — work only for the well-educated, many believe. However, MOOC participants learned as much or more than traditional students in a MIT physics class, a new study concludes. Less-capable students did as well as similar students in the traditional class.