‘Click-click’ credits raise graduation rates

K-12 schools are adding — and sometimes requiring — online classes, reports the New York Times.  Failing students try to “recover” credits online; successful students take electives and Advanced Placement classes that don’t generate enough interest to justify a class. But the quality of online learning is suspect, especially for weak students.

Memphis City Schools now requires all students to take at least one course to graduate, starting with this year’s sophomores. School officials say “they want to give students skills they will need in college, where online courses are increasingly common, and in the 21st-century workplace,” the Times reports.

But it is also true that Memphis is spending only $164 for each student in an online course.

. . . “It’s a cheap education, not because it benefits the students,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the teachers’ union in Miami, where 7,000 high school students were assigned to study online in computer labs this year because there were not enough teachers to comply with state class-size caps.

Idaho will give a laptop to every high school student and require four or more online courses. Critics complain the state will replace teachers with technology.

Chicago and New York City are piloting online learning programs, which include both credit recovery and advanced classes for high school students, as well as “personalized after-school computer drills in math and English for elementary students.”

Nationwide, an estimated 1.03 million students at the K-12 level took an online course in 2007-8, up 47 percent from two years earlier, according to the Sloan Consortium, an advocacy group for online education. About 200,000 students attend online schools full time, often charter schools that appeal to home-schooling families, according to another report.

There’s little research on the effectiveness of online courses for K-12 students, reports the U.S. Education Department.

Even online advocates are “dubious” about online courses that let students who’ve failed a regular class “recover” the credits, the Times reports. These “click-click credits” are used to boost graduation rates.

Sheffield High in Memphis, once a “dropout factory” with a graduation rate below 60 percent, now hopes to graduate 86 percent of the class of 2011. Online classes have helped. The district buys software for the Florida Virtual School, then pays its own teachers extra to work 10 hours a week with 150 online students.

The Times watches Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course.

. . . he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

Asked about social Darwinism, the 18-year-old student did a Google search, copied a Wikipedia entry and e-mailed it to the teacher.

Online classes aren’t always money savers, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on HechingerEd. In particular, online credit-recovery classes don’t work without “some sort of teacher presence, whether virtual or physical.”

Detroit buys laptops

Detroit’s hard-hit public schools are buying 35,000 laptop computers for all sixth- through 12th-grade students, reports the Free Press.  The district already bought 5,000 laptops for teachers. The money comes from a $49 million federal grant.

The technology “will truly create 21st century learning environments,” said Robert Bobb, the “emergency financial manager” and de facto superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. “Today we opened their classrooms to the world.”

In addition, 4,789 desktop computers will be distributed to ensure every classroom has a computer. Schools will get 4,291 printer/scanners and 4,550 document cameras that capture images for display on large screens.

Teachers will be able to access Learning Village, an online system that includes state standards, lesson plans and tutoring tools. By fall, staff and parents will be able to use the system to record and monitor student grades, Bobb said.

What happens when a disorganized, dysfunctional school gets a bunch of computers?  Nothing.

Is Spending Money on Technology Worth It? asks Larry Cuban, a Stanford education professor, in Ed Week.

Each reason for spending money has so little evidence to support the investment that it is like buying dot-com stocks that lose money year after year. It is, as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan once said about the stock market, “an irrational exuberance.”

The rest of the piece is subscribers-only, but you get the idea.

Update: More schools are buying their students $750 iPads, reports the New York Times, which quotes Cuban saying there are better ways to spend the money.

World’s best classrooms are low-tech

In nations with the highest-performing students, classrooms “contain very little tech wizardry,” writes Amanda Ripley on Slate Magazine.  “Children sit at rows of desks, staring up at a teacher who stands in front of a well-worn chalkboard,” just like in U.S. classrooms in 1989 or 1959.

“In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,” says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong). “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

Kristin De Jesus, a San Diego high school student, is attending a public school in South Korea as an exchange student.

“In California, we use white boards, while in Korea they use chalkboards,” she says. “There is a dirt field outside. We have a projector, that’s about it.” Back home, teachers would hand out Mac laptops for kids to work on in class. But in Korea, the only computers are older PCs, and they remain in the computer lab, which is used only once a week for computer class.

Korean students attend school for eight or nine hours a day and then study hard at night.  “When I was in California, I barely ever studied and did pretty well in my classes,” De Jesus admits.

Finland also excels on international tests — but without long school hours or high pressure, Ripley notes. Both South Korea and Finland have one thing in common: Smart teachers. All teachers come from the top third of the class,  according to a McKinsey survey which found only 23 percent of U.S. teachers were top-third students.

On a visit to a high-performing KIPP school in Washington, D.C., Ripley counted four computers in a fifth-grade math class, “an ink-jet printer, and an overhead projector that looked to be at least 15 years old.”

Later, I asked (Lisa) Suben, who has been teaching for eight years, what the perfect classroom would look like. “If I were designing my ideal classroom, there’d be another body teaching. Or there’d be 36 hours in the day instead of 24.”

Suben praises computer-adaptive tests, which produce instant results she can use to understand how each student is doing.”It might say, ‘You know how to round to the hundreds, but you don’t know how to round to the thousands?’ That’s, for me, an aha moment.”  But Suben’s desert-island teaching tool is the overhead projector. “I wouldn’t be able to give up the overhead, because then I’d have to turn my back to the class,” she said.

KIPP DC founder Susan Schaeffler, a former teacher, says it would cost $300,000 to put an interactive white board in every classroom in the school.  “I’d rather pay Lisa Suben more to stay forever.”

No charges in webcam spy case

Lower Merion School District employees will not face criminal charges for using webcam-equipped laptops to photograph students in their homes, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Prosecutors said criminal intent couldn’t be proved.

Lawsuits filed by two district students will proceed.

The district’s own investigation concluded that technicians used the software only to find lost or missing laptops. But its report also found that staffers often forgot to turn off the tracking system after they turned it on, letting the webcams snap tens of thousands of photos and send them to the district’s servers in the last two years.

At least 40 students were photographed through their laptops.

56,000 spycam images

The Philadelphia Inquirer has more on the investigation of the Lower Merion School District spycam case,

(School) employees activated the web cameras and tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 80 times in the past two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images that included photos of students, pictures inside their homes and copies of the programs or files running on their screens, district investigators have concluded.

. . . in at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers – programmed to snap a photo and capture a screen shot every 15 minutes when the machine was on – fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school district servers.

Only one student was monitored for failing to pay insurance on the laptop, investigators say.  That must have been sophomore Blake Robbins, who filed suit.  In 15 cases, investigators were unable to determine why school officials turned on the spycam.

Spycam suit: Photos, e-mail show snooping

In response to a lawsuit charging school-issued laptops were used as spycams, Lower Merion School District has turned over photos showing 15-year-old Blake Robbins partially undressed and sleeping in bed, excerpts of online chats and information on web sites visited. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Back at district offices, the Robbins motion says, employees with access to the images marveled at the tracking software. It was like a window into “a little LMSD soap opera,” a staffer is quoted as saying in an e-mail to Carol Cafiero, the administrator running the program.

“I know, I love it,” she is quoted as having replied.

The remote monitoring system was supposed to be used to track lost or stolen laptops. The district says the camera was turned on because Robbins had failed to pay the $55 insurance fee required to take the laptop home.

His parents’ suit claims district records show more than 400 photos and screen images from their son’s laptop during two weeks last fall, plus “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots” of  “numerous other students in their homes.”

Robbins and his parents say they first learned of the technology on Nov. 11, when an assistant Harriton principal confronted the teen with an image collected by the tracking software.

Robbins has said one image showed him with a handful of Mike and Ike candies – which the administrator thought were illegal pills.

School officials could have demanded that Robbins return the laptop or pay the insurance fee without taking a single photo — much less 400 — to prove he’d taken it home. There is no excuse for tracking his web use or online chats.

Spying on students via 'free' laptops

School administrators are spying on students at home by remotely activating the webcams on school-supplied laptops, charge parents in a lawsuit against Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia. Using state and federal fundings, the affluent district provided laptops to 1,800 high school students.

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of “improper behavior in his home” and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students’ laptops. “Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through [Assistant Principal] Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer,” the lawsuit stated.

It’s hard to believe this is true. I hope it’s not. The district has not responded to the lawsuit yet. Maybe the parents are crazy and there was no photo of “improper behavior.” If it is true, the administrators are crazy. And apparently don’t have enough to do with their time.

Update: The superintendent says officials remotely activated the webcams only to find lost or stolen laptops and will disable the remote activation feature. Meanwhile, students have taped over the cameras.

Deworming works better than laptops

On a visit to Rio, my daughter took the favela tour, which included a visit to a slum school where children were working on computers. The slum also had gotten running water. Which helps kids more? Probably clean water, argues Timothy Ogen in Miller-McCune Online.

One Laptop per Child — an attempt to transform Third World education by distributing $100 laptops — is faltering, Ogden writes. But there are cheaper, more effective alternatives that make a real difference.

In the U.S., many programs to give laptops to students have been abandoned due to “high costs and no evidence of benefit,” writes Ogden. In the developing world, studies have shown few benefits to technology. In Romania, giving computers to poor families “had a negative effect on students’ grades and educational goals.” Giving computers, curriculum support and training to teachers in Colombia had “no impact on student outcomes.” A study in India found students did worse if they used computers during school hours but better if they used them after hours to drill on skills.

What does work? Deworming, writes Ogden.

Delivering deworming medication costs 50 cents per child per year in Kenya but yielded a 25 percent increase in school attendance; a similar program in India cost $4 per student per year and yielded a 20 percent attendance gain.

Nearly 40 years ago, a professor who’d taught in Africa told us about the curse of parasitic worms. Students had no energy to learn; workers tired easily.

Getting teachers to show up and teach also makes a big difference. Indian students did much better when “teachers were required to take date-stamped digital pictures of themselves with students each day in order to receive their pay.” Cost of each additional day of teacher attendance: $2.20.

Splitting classes into high and low performers helped both types of students in Kenya. Adding an other teacher was much cheaper than buying laptops.

In rural India, tutors improved the performance of low achievers at very low cost.

Because public schools are so bad in Third World countries (in part, because teachers don’t show up), poor families sacrifice to send their children to private schools with average fees of $3 a month, James Tooley, a British professor, has found.

Tooley estimates that more than 50 percent of urban slum-dwelling children, and nearly 25 percent of children in rural India, where per capita income is less than $2 a day, attend private school, even though public schools are nominally free.

. . . Cutting the cost of such schools in half via subsidies or scholarships, enabling even more parents to be able to afford to send their children (or to send additional children), would cost just $18 per child per year, on average.

Don’t fetishize technology — or anything else — warns Alexander Russo.

Keep It Simple, Smartie is a good slogan too.

A Kindle in Every Backpack

Every student would get an e-book device, proposes the Democratic Leadership Council in “A Kindle in Every Backpack.” From the New York Times:

Its authors argue that government should furnish each student in the country with a digital reading device, which would allow textbooks to be cheaply distributed and updated, and allow teachers to tailor an interactive curriculum that effectively competes for the attention of their students in the digital age.

The proposal would cost $9 billion more than the current print textbook budget, the authors estimate, but might save $700 million a year over traditional textbook purchases by the fifth year. Or not.

Developing the content of textbooks costs money — and it will cost even more to make the new e-books interactive and whizz-bangy.  (My husband authored college engineering textbooks; it takes time and skill to do it right.)

I don’t doubt that the paper textbook is going to be obsolete soon, if only to save kids’ backs, but the drive to hand out Kindles to all reminds me of the drive to hand out laptops.  That was supposed to revolutionize learning too.

Learning in Taiwan, Portugal

Taiwanese elementary students use hands-on learning, writes Bill Costello of Making Minds Matter.

For example, Taiwanese students went on a field trip to a castle they studied in social studies; they collected local plants and used them to make a dye in science; and they worked with compasses and rulers in math.

. . . I observed a science teacher and art teacher in Taiwan collaborate in guiding students through a science project that involved drawing.

Portugal is investing heavily in interactive whiteboards and laptops, writes Don Tapscott on Wikinomics. But what’s remarkable about seven-year-olds looking up the definition of “equinox” on their laptops is how well these kids can read.