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What Happens When Your Teacher Is a Video Game?

Ohanian Comment: The Chamber of Commerce/Business Roundtable model for schools means teachers as an endangered species.

Education reformers want to use technology in the classroom—for almost everything.

by Gordon Lafer

This fall, New Orleans's Recovery School District became the country's first all-charter district, completing a process begun following Hurricane Katrina, when the Bush administration refused to pay for reopening public schools, instead providing $45 million for charter schools to take their place. While these schools are publicly funded, the local community has no control over their curriculum or quality because they are not overseen by any democratically elected school board.

If corporate lobbyists have their way, the New Orleans model will be replicated across the country, with Netflix CEO and charter booster Reed Hastings leading the call to "get rid of school boards."

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, a new type of segregation is spreading across the urban landscape. The US Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity and their legislative allies are promoting an ambitious, two-pronged agenda for poor cities: replace public schools with privately run charter schools, and replace teachers with technology.

What was accomplished by a hurricane in New Orleans is being pursued elsewhere by legislation. The formula is simple: use standardized tests to declare dozens of poor schools "persistently failing"; put these under the control of a special unelected authority; and then have that authority replace the public schools with charters. In 2011, Tennessee and Michigan created special districts to take over low-scoring schools; in both cases, the superintendent was specifically authorized to replace public schools with charters. This year, Wisconsin legislators considered a bill that bypassed the middle step and simply required that low-performing public schools be replaced with privately run charters. Since test scores are primarily a function of poverty, it’s no surprise that 80 percent of the Tennessee schools targeted for privatization are in Memphis, or that the Michigan and Wisconsin bills focus, respectively, on Detroit and Milwaukee.

Recently, corporate-backed reform advocates have begun insisting that no public authority whatsoever be responsible for running schools. Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, warns that superintendents "must not succumb to the temptation to improve schools through better direct operation. Rather, [they] must humbly acknowledge that a marketplace of school operators will...out-perform even the best direct-run system." Hastings similarly suggests that the role of elected school boards be limited to "bringing to town more and more charter-school networks. Sort of like a Chamber of Commerce would to develop business."

Thus, what "slum clearance” did for the real-estate industry in the 1960s and '70s, high-stakes testing will do for the charter industry: wipe away large swaths of public schools, enabling private operators to grow not school by school, but twenty or thirty schools at a time.

This is not an evidence-based policy; research shows that replacing public schools with privately run charters will, in itself, do nothing to improve education. But this hasn’t dampened the vigor of charter-school boosters.

* * *

Corporate lobbyists are increasingly promoting a type of charter school that places an emphasis on technology instead of human teachers. One of the exemplars of this model is Rocketship Education, based in Silicon Valley but with contracts to open schools in Milwaukee, Memphis, Nashville and Washington, DC. Rocketship's model is based on four principles. First, the company cuts costs by eliminating teachers. Starting in kindergarten, students spend about one-quarter of their class time in teacherless computer labs, using video-game-based math and reading applications. The company has voiced hopes of increasing digital instruction to as much as 50 percent of student learning time.

Second, Rocketship relies on a corps of young, inexperienced, low-cost teachers. The turnover rate is dramatic—nearly 30 percent last year—but the company pays Teach for America to supply a steady stream of replacements.

Third, the school has narrowed its curriculum to a near-exclusive focus on math and reading. Since both Rocketship's marketing strategy and teachers' salaries are based on reading and math scores, other subjects are treated as inessential. There are no dedicated social studies or science classes, no music or foreign-language instruction, no guidance counselors and no libraries.

Finally, Rocketship maintains a relentless focus on teaching to the test. Students take math exams every eight weeks; following each, the staff revises lesson plans with an eye to improving scores. Rocketship boasts of its "backwards-mapping" pedagogy--starting with the test standards and then developing lesson plans to meet them. Rocketship is, as near as possible, all test-prep all the time.

Research suggests that any number of school models are more beneficial than online instruction. So why is this model being promoted by the country's most powerful lobbies? Because, in Willie Sutton's (apocryphal) words, "that's where the money is." As Hastings explains, the great financial advantage of digital education is that "you can produce once and consume many times." Schools like Rocketship receive exactly the same funding for their teacherless applications as traditional schools do for credentialed teachers. Indeed, ALEC's model legislation--adopted in five states—requires that even entirely virtual schools be paid the same dollars per student as traditional ones. As a result, the profit margins for digital products are enormous. It's no wonder that investment banks, hedge funds and venture capitalists have flocked to this market. Rupert Murdoch pronounced US education "a $500 billion sectorâ€Â¦waiting desperately to be transformed."

— Gordon Lafer
The Nation





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