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e-Learning in the Age of Betsy DeVos

By Allison Carr-Chellman / March 2017

TYPE: OPINION
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Well, the dust hasn't yet settled, but the confirmation deal is done.  Betsy DeVos is the new U.S. Secretary of Education, having been confirmed by not just a razor-thin measure, but rather by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence that was unprecedented for a presidential cabinet appointment.

What are the likely potentials and possibilities for e-learning in the new era of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos?  It's worth exploring what we might be able to anticipate for e-learning in the coming era.

The Value of Choice

I believe we can anticipate increased emphasis on schools of choice. Now, while basically all of higher education represents schools of choice, because families choose among many post-secondary options from community colleges, trade schools, colleges and universities, with a wide variety of in-state and out-of-state locations, this is decidedly not the case for K-12 educational options.  This is what Secretary DeVos would like to change. 

At eLearn Magazine, during my tenure as editor-in-chief, we have worked to increase the coverage and focus on the application of e-learning models and approaches to the K-12 space.  And there are more options than ever.  Earlier conversations have covered the concerns around public good for public schools in the face of cybercharter schooling through large corporate entities such as K12 Inc. (http://elearnmag.acm.org/opinion.cfm?aid=2817143).  I think we can count on higher levels of choice across multiple platforms under Secretary Devos. 

Secretary DeVos has made a number of statements on school choice, some more controversial than others. Let's start with her opening statement from her confirmation hearings (https://www.help.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/DeVos.pdf), in which she stated,

Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious, or any combination thereof.  Yet, too many parents are denied access to the full range of options…choices that many of us—here in this room—have exercised for our own children.  Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents' ability to exercise educational choice for their children?  I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that's best for their individual children.

It's clear that an emphasis on choice will be a centerpiece of DeVos' platform, and that her perspective on this issue is shared by many parents, and the general American population…in theory.

The American Federation for Children conducted a poll in January 2017 to gauge support for school choice in America (http://www.federationforchildren.org/poll-public-support-school-choice-remains-strong-supportive-federal-movement-increase-school-choice/), which found that 68% of respondents supported choice, while only 28% opposed it.  The finding is highly partisan, with 84% of those supporting school choice identifying as Republican. 

However, it is also the case that the public generally supports the notion of public schools as a public good, and also like their own local schools, but question the effectiveness of the overall school system (http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/23/490380129/americans-like-their-schools-just-fine-but-not-yours).  This aligns well with the overall political tenor in the country, in which orientations away from state-run, government-run services are at an all-time high. 

Within K-12 schools, this will likely translate into more and more options for parents and students.

Research shows that for many families, however, choice doesn't work because not all parents are sufficiently engaged. Thus, schools of choice tend to have more homogeneous populations (Teske & Schneider, 2001; https://www.jstor.org/stable/3325775?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) with increased stratification often by income.  Poorer parents may be working multiple jobs or dealing with family crises and be unable to commit even to figuring out what school of choice might work best for their child.  This amounts to a certain kind of "creaming," or taking the highest-achieving students out of the existing, traditional school system. 

Despite the relatively dismal evidence supporting cyber charters (http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/virtual-schools-annual-2015), there remains strong support for this option, and the industry itself is continuing to grow.  I would anticipate with increasingly choice-friendly policy-making among those in the Department of Education, it is quite likely that cyber charters, particularly as large corporate entities, will enjoy significant growth and relative financial success, even if their academic success continues to lag behind traditional brick and mortar districts, magnet, privates, and charter school options.   With this growth is likely to come an erosion of concern for public schools for the public good, an increase in interest in schooling as a good growth commodity traded openly by investors with an eye toward return on investment, and consequent increases in political lobbying for increasingly choice-friendly policies going forward (http://www.alternet.org/dont-be-fooled-investors-charter-schools-are-cash-cows).

Misinformation

At this point, it should not be a huge surprise to readers regardless of political persuasion that there are significant nuances in politics that are typically lost on most of us, that aren't effectively communicated within the 24-hour news cycle, and certainly that aren't best understood via twitter.  That said, there are some pretty large chunks of misinformation that are being propogated by Ms. DeVos which we should, as educators, be closely attending to, in order to better understand the nuances and subtleties underlying any "alternative facts" that may be surfacing around school choice and online learning in particular.  

We have one example in the recent flap over statements made by Ms. DeVos regarding Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's).  Ms. DeVos mischaracterized the HBCU movement as one that was responding to the need for more opportunities and choice for African Americans seeking post-secondary educational opportunities.  She stated that HBCU's were "living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality."  In this, she likens HBCUs to "pioneers of school choice."  However, this kind of a statement ignores the historical complexity of the HBCU creation as a movement to respond to racist Jim Crow laws and segregation throughout schooling experiences for all Americans at the time  (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2017/02/28/devos-called-hbcus-pioneers-of-school-choice-it-didnt-go-over-well/?utm_term=.0f36dc7ae6df).

Within the e-learning space, this alone may not be of too much concern, but within the larger context of leadership and online schooling, as well as the current political climate, misinformation should be a serious concern for those of us interested in e-learning future opportunities. 

Perhaps the clearest example here is a significant inflation of graduation rates among cybercharter schoolers. Most of us involved in e-learning recognize the very high attrition rates among online learners at both K-12 and secondary education (Diaz 2002; Dagger, Wade & Conlan, 2004), which can range from 50% attrition to as high as 80% attrition depending on how you "count" these rates.  DeVos has clearly aligned her reportage of attrition rates with those offered up by K12 Inc., a corporate entity whose very existence depends on "selling" more learners and the public on the merits of online learning.  As per my earlier conversations on K12 Inc. in this forum, as professionals in e-learning we need to be cautious about relying too heavily on such self-serving data as this. 

It is of note that DeVos was an investor in K12 Inc. and relied heavily on their data in reporting graduation rates from cybercharter schooling.  Misinformation cited by Secretary DeVos were significant and rampant in her statements around the cybercharter issue (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/DigitalEducation/2017/02/devos_cites_inflated_numbers_k12_inc_cyber_charters.html ).  An example of this is her statement that Idaho's Virtual Academy's graduation rate was 90%, when the correct figure is 33%.  While some may say that these numbers are more nuanced and could be figured differently, most would question that 90% number which is directly reflected in the K12 Inc. reports. 

Funding formulae

Citing a growing, never-ending narrative of school failure and poor performance, I think it's reasonable to expect even more focus on accountability and outcomes measures.  Coming closer all the time to corporate understanding of return on investment (ROI), we can surely expect funding formulae to follow outcomes with increased interest in prioritization of cost-effective, or at least efficient, programs for public schools nationwide.  It is quite likely that a more robust "pay for performance" funding formula will be positioned as a bipartisan solution, though most people working inside schools recognize this kind of brutal funding policy tends to create a significant departure from what's good for children, including falsified test scoring, promotion of children who haven't mastered material, and other unintended consequences of the pressure of trying desperately to keep particularly poor children in the foreground of funding opportunities (http://parentsacrossamerica.org/performancepay/).

Because schools are complex social entities with many intervening variables affecting achievement, such as families, neighborhoods, socio-economic status, and so many more criteria that tend to lead to success regardless of educational interventions, it is nearly impossible to really found funding formulae on a "pay for performance" articulation.  However, it is quite likely that under DeVos, this aspect of education funding will only grow and thrive, rather than being beaten back.  Given the ability to easily use metrics that are cybercharter-friendly or miscalculated (to be generous), there are grave concerns that only traditional schools will be disadvantaged in such funding policies. 

Deregulation

DeVos has focused much of her work on policies that are friendly to deregulation overall.  Her career has centered on market-based and privatized orientations to public schools.  While a move toward charter schooling and vouchers will help to move toward lesser regulation of those schools, there are still a great deal of state-level regulations guiding the daily lives of children in schools (both cyber and traditional brick and mortar).  In this, DeVos may be turned away, frustrated (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/upshot/why-donald-trumps-education-pick-would-face-barriers-for-vouchers.html?_r=0). Realistically, the federal role in K-12 education is less centralized and Ms. DeVos will likely find she was able to make more impact at the state level in Michigan than she can within the federal government….that is, unless the Department of Education is entirely disbanded.  If that were to occur, and it has been suggested by President Trump alongside the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency (http://circa.com/politics/election-2016/trump-would-slash-us-education-department-reverse-worker-overtime-rules),  that would further erode some levels of regulation that the Department currently enforces, but would focus on regulations at the local and state levels, again frustrating attempts to move to a more deregulated and market-driven space at the federal level. What could be the most insidious outcome of deregulation might be a move to deregulate charters, cybers, and privates, while maintaining regulations for traditional schools.  This kind of policy making privileges schools of choice over traditional schools and can create significant stratification if not carefully monitored.

Conclusion

Ultimately, of course, only the passage of time will tell us what Secretary DeVos and President Trump's leadership will bring to the online learning space.  From a futuring perspective, it is quite likely we will see a dramatic increase in the rhetoric, and potentially the reality, of school choice, including online learning across K-12 spaces. Predictably, there will also be an emphasis on market-driven funding options, potentially the elimination of the Department of Education, and a shifting of regulations from national to local and state levels. Because these shifts are likely to be fed by misinformation, incorrect data, or "alternative facts," we, as educational professionals, need to be continually informed by the intersection of research and reliable data that can be utilized to more vociferously and accurately defend good policy making for the broad goals of public education.

References
Dagger, D., Wade, V., and Conlan, O., (2004), "A Framework for developing adaptive personalized eLearning," e-Learn 2004, World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare and Higher Education, Washington, D.C.

Diaz, D. P. (2002), Online drop rates revisited The Technology Source. Retrieved May 3, 2012, from http://technologysource.org/article/online_drop_rates_revisited/

About the Author

Dr. Alison A. Carr-Chellman is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine. She has been a professor of Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University for 17 years and currently serves as the Head of the Learning and Performance Systems department. She has written more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and papers on topics related to school change with a particular emphasis on those populations who are underserved by the current system. Her recent TED Talk, Gaming to re-engage boys in learning, has brought international attention to the issues facing boys in the current educational system and ways that digital learning media may be used to highlight the mismatch between boy culture and school culture.

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2017 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/17/03-3058795



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