A learning revolution — or digital hype?

“The learning revolution is underway,” writes Tom Vander Ark in Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World.

“There is good reason for optimism,” but beware of Hyper Hype, responds Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.

. . . digital technology can customize learning and dismantle the old calendars and spaces of schooling. Extraordinary innovations have arrived—online curricula, learning games, customized play-lists—and they are ready for implementation across the land if only educators and public officials break with standard procedure and embrace them.

. . . Every few pages Vander Ark adds a bold prediction sidebar: “In five years…Information from keystroke data will unlock the new field of motivation research…,” “In five years…Most learning platforms will feature a smart recommendation engine, similar to iTunes Genius…,” and “In five years…Science will confirm the obvious about how most boys learn and active learning models will be developed in response using expeditions, playlists, and projects.”

In his enthusiasm, Vander Ark ignores the disappointments (laptops for all had little impact) and the dangers (social media can fuel gossip, bullying and cheating), Bauerlein writes.

All this hype and prophecy is unnecessary. The digital future is here, and its main educational advantage, the individualization of learning, is recognized by everyone. At this point, the pressing questions are practical: how much it costs, how to overcome bureaucracy, for example. Vander Ark does include an appendix of concrete advice, such as urging state leaders to allow students to personalize their learning and base matriculation on demonstrated competency, not on seat time, but these are precisely the points to expound in the main text, not stick in an appendix. . . .  What we need is sound evidence, presented without hyperbole, of scalable and cost-effective digital programs that yield higher reading, writing, and math achievement.

Utah’s digital learning law lets districts and charter schools offer online courses to students throughout the state “and pocket a reasonable share of the state aid that comes with every student enrolled,” writes Paul Peterson. In theory, providers will compete for students by offering high-quality courses. “But that dream may not come true unless various aspects of the law are re-thought,” Peterson writes.

Utah governor vetoes sex ed ban

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed a bill that would have banned discussion of contraception in sex ed classes. A Republican in a very conservative state, Herbert gave the veto a parent control spin.

. . .  Herbert said that as a parent and grandparent he considered proper sex education in public schools an important component to the moral education youngsters receive at home.

“If HB 363 were to become law, parents would no longer have the option the overwhelming majority is currently choosing for their children. I am unwilling to conclude that the state knows better than Utah’s parents as to what is best for their children,” he said.

Currently, schools can teach “abstinence plus” sex ed, with parents’ consent, or abstinence-only.

. . .  Utah teachers may describe different types of contraceptives, how they work (such as by preventing transfer of bodily fluids) and their success and failure rates, though they may not advocate their use or explain to students how to use them.

The bill also would have barred instruction on homosexuality or other types of human sexuality.


In its zeal to push Common Core Standards on all the states, Arne Duncan’s Education Department is “pretending that three laws do not mean what they clearly say,” writes columnist George Will. He cites the Pioneer Institute’s report, The Road to a National Curriculum, by three former department officials.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act – No Child Left Behind is its ninth iteration – said “nothing in this act” shall authorize any federal official to “mandate, direct, or control” a state’s, local educational agency’s or school’s curriculum.

The General Education Provisions Act of 1970 stipulates that “no provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize” any federal agency or official “to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction” or selection of “instructional materials” by “any educational institution or school system.”

The 1979 law establishing the Education Department forbids it from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” or “program of instruction” of any school or school system. The ESEA as amended goes further: No funds provided to the Education Department “may be used…to endorse, approve, or sanction any curriculum designed to be used in” grades K-12.

The department has used Race to the Top funding and No Child Left Behind waivers to pressure states to adopt the new standards, the Pioneer report charges. The effect will be a national curriculum.

“As the regulatory state’s micromanagement of society metastasizes, inconvenient laws are construed — by those the laws are supposed to restrain — as porous and permissive, enabling the executive branch to render them nullities,” Will concludes.

Update: When South Carolina legislators considered rescinding the state’s adoption of Common Core Standards, Duncan blasted the idea. He drew a lot of flak for that. In response to Utah’s threatened withdrawal, he wrote a letter agreeing that it’s the state’s decision.

K-12 average is $10,499 per pupil

Public schools spent $10,499 per student in fiscal 2009, according to the Census Bureau. That was 2.3 percent more than the year before.  New York was the top spender at $18,126 per pupil, followed by the District of Columbia ($16,408) and New Jersey ($16,271).

For $18,126 per student — or even $10,499 per student — it should be possible to pay teachers fairly, buy books and supplies and heat the building.

Utah spent just $6,356, Idaho $7,092 and Arizona $7,813.

Public school systems received $590.9 billion in funding in 2009, up 1.5 percent from the prior year. States provided 46.7 percent, local sources 43.8 percent and the federal government 9.5 percent.

Utah leads in online learning

Utah is leading the way in digital learning, writes Matthew Ladner on Jay P. Greene’s Blog. A new state law based on Digital Learning Now’s Ten Elements of Quality Online Learning “funds success rather than just seat time, has no participation caps and allows multiple public and private providers.” The program starts for public high school students but then adds home-school and private school students.

Tom Vander Ark’s predicted “radical choice” at the lesson level,

We’ll soon have adaptive content libraries and smart recommendation engines that string together a unique playlist for every student every day. These smart platforms will consider learning level, interests, and best learning modality (i.e.,motivational profile and learning style to optimize understanding and persistence).

Smart learning platforms will be used by some students that learn at home, by some students that connect through hybrid schools with a day or two on site, and by most students through blended schools that mix online learning with on site support systems.

West Virginia’s state board of education has adopted the Digital Learning Now recommendations, writes Vander Ark on EdReformer.

Florida’s legislature passed a bill requiring high school students to take at least one online course. The law also ends the Florida Virtual School‘s monopoly on online classes.

1 million new graduates in California?

California’s community colleges must produce 1 million graduates by 2020 to meet President Obama’s college-completion goal: The U.S. will be first in the world in college-educated workers. (The goal includes certificates and associate degrees, not just bachelor’s degrees.)

Also on Community College Spotlight: Colleges are scheduling classes at midnight and 5 a.m to meet demand. In Utah, a community college has two semesters running simultaneously.

U.S. schools adopt Singapore Math

More U.S. schools are adopting Singapore Math, reports the New York Times, which characterizes the program as a balance between traditional and reform math.

In contrast to the most common math programs in the United States, Singapore math devotes more time to fewer topics, to ensure that children master the material through detailed instruction, questions, problem solving, and visual and hands-on aids like blocks, cards and bar charts. Ideally, they do not move on until they have thoroughly learned a topic.

Principals and teachers say that slowing down the learning process gives students a solid math foundation upon which to build increasingly complex skills, and makes it less likely that they will forget and have to be retaught the same thing in later years.

Despite the slow start, Singapore Math students can be a year ahead by fourth or fifth grade, advocates say.  Singapore, which developed the program 30 years ago, is first in the world in international math tests.

SingaporeMath.com sells books to more than 1,500 schools, about twice as many as in 2008. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Math in Focus, the U.S. edition of a Singapore math series, is used in 120 school districts and 60 charter schools and private schools.

The books and materials cost about as much as other math books, but teachers need training, which can be expensive.

“All along, people have said it’s too hard, too demanding for teachers,” said Jeffery Thomas, a history teacher who founded SingaporeMath.com with his wife, Dawn, after using the books to tutor their daughter at home in the suburbs of Portland, Ore.

Mr. Thomas said that about a dozen schools had started and dropped Singapore math, in some cases because teachers themselves lacked a strong math background and adequate training in the program.

Scarsdale hired math coaches to help teachers use Singapore Math. Bill Jackson observed a  fourth-grade math class devoted to analyzing the number 82,566 (the seats in New Meadowlands Stadium, where the Giants and Jets play football).

They built it with chips on a laminated mat, diagrammed it on a smart board and, finally, solved written questions.

Mr. Jackson said that students moved through a three-step learning process: concrete, pictorial, abstract. American math programs, he said, typically skip the middle step and lose students when making the jump from concrete (chips) to abstract (questions).

For those of you using Singapore Math, does the Times describe it accurately?

Utah’s Math Future wants to use Singapore Math as the basis for the state’s math standards. The site links to Let’s Play Math, which shows how students use bar graphs to solve math problems set in Narnia.

U.S. schools spend $10,259 per student

U.S. public schools spent $10,259 per student in 2007-08, according to a Census Bureau report. New York, topping the nation at $17,173 per student, spent roughly three times more than Utah, which spent only $5,765 per student.

The national average represented a 6.1 percent increase over the year before.

Other top spenders were New Jersey ($16,491), Alaska ($14,630), the District of Columbia ($14,594), Vermont ($14,300) and Connecticut ($13,848). After Utah, low spenders were Idaho ($6,931), Arizona ($7,608), Oklahoma ($7,685) and Tennessee ($7,739).

Instructional salaries made up 40.2 percent of school spending, the report found.

Louisiana had the highest percentage of public-school funding from the federal government at 16.8%, followed by Mississippi (16%) and South Dakota (15.2%). The lowest percentages were in New Jersey (3.9%), Connecticut (4.2%) and Massachusetts (5.1%).

Nationwide, 8.1 percent of school spending came from federal sources.

With many large Mormon families, Utah and Idaho have more students per taxpayer than other states, notes the Deseret News.

School districts cope through a number of methods, such as hiring uncertified employees to man their libraries, and relying on aides who receive on-the-job training. This year, at least eight districts will be cutting back on their instructional days, and in districts throughout the state, portable classrooms are used as a means of accommodating population surges and staving off building projects until funding is available.

And those large Mormon families don’t produce a lot of problem children. Uncertified library aides and portables are common in California, which spent $9,863 per student, 28th in the nation, according to the Census report.

Update: Charter schools do no better than district-run schools, says American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten. A reader writes: Five thousand years of Jewish history and we finally find a Jewish woman who boasts of paying retail.

Is 12th grade necessary?

A Utah legislator proposed eliminating 12th grade — “nothing but playing around”  — to save $102 million a year.  Now Republican State Sen. Chris Buttars has modified that to making the senior year optional for students who’ve completed enough credits.

“You’re spending a whole lot of money for a whole bunch of kids who aren’t getting anything out of that grade,” Buttars said. “It comes down to the best use of money.”

. . . “The kids either got one foot in AP classes in college, or they’re just running around taking P.E.,” Buttars said.

Utah teachers says most students need 12th grade to complete high school work and prepare for college. Those with extra credits already can collect a diploma early, though presumably Utah could offer college discounts for those who graduate early and save taxpayers money.

How many 12th graders are wasting their time — or enrolled in classes they could be taking at a local community college?

Update: Under a Gates-funded experiment, 10th graders who pass a series of exams could enroll immediately in community college. Those who fail can try again after 11th grade.

The new system of high school coursework with the accompanying board examinations is modeled largely on systems in high-performing nations including Denmark, England, Finland, France and Singapore.

The goal is to make it clear what students need to learn to succeed in college.