Monday, April 20, 2015

eLearning? eAcademy? eLegitimate? My Conversation with a Direct Mailer

I am about to have a conversation with a direct mailer.
Advertisements for virtual charter schools have been clogging my mailbox, making full-color oversized promises of educational utopia in an attempt to lure away yet more funding from already cash-strapped local schools.
So when yet a third direct mailer recently entered my home from eAchieve Academy, a virtual charter school within Waukesha public schools, that little voice inside me, often squelched in the interest of good manners, demanded to be heard, and so, it shall.
eAchieve logoIn the following dialogue, eAchieve Academy (eAA) will be represented by its own words as quoted from its direct mailers, and I (CF) shall play the role of myself, a public school English teacher and technology integration specialist, more than a bit skeptical about the claims of eAchieve Academy and the merits of sitting a child in front of a computer and calling it a superior education.
eAA: "Is your child happy in school?"
CF: Happiness, while important, is not the first question one should ask a student about school, ever. Happiness to a teenager may mean a jar of Nutella and a spoon, a string of easy A's, or the opportunity to watch a viral cat video over and over and over again, yet I hardly think any of those define a quality education. A better question might be "Is your child learning?" or "Is your child sufficiently challenged in class?"
eAA: "What if there was a tuition free alternative to traditional classroom based school?"
CF:  Nothing is free, period. As is the case with all charter schools in Wisconsin, state aid follows the student, so "free tuition" is taxpayer provided tuition, tuition which would otherwise contribute to the working budget of that student's local school.
eAA: "[We offer] the ability to go to school from home in a safe environment free from classroom distractions, social drama, bad influences and bullying."
CF: a.k.a. your child can avoid all potentially unpleasant social situations, can elect not to interact with others, can refrain from hearing differing points of view; in essence, your child can opt out of being a part of the larger world in its complexity, diversity, richness, and  yes, conflicts, but I hardly think this will give him/her an edge in our increasingly diverse population and global economy.
eAA: "[We offer] experienced, state-certified professional teachers."
CF: On your website, I found rudimentary teacher bios, but nowhere could I find how long any of your teachers have been teaching, kind of a biggie when you're boasting of an "experienced" staff.  I also wonder why teachers would opt for online teaching, especially when I learned from Principal Rick Nettesheim (I had questions about my mailer, so I called) that the average virtual high school teacher has 300 students (over twice what traditional teachers have). Why would an experienced teacher opt for a less personal relationship with students, and a much higher student-teacher ratio?
eAA: "[We offer] flexible scheduling with the opportunity to work at your own pace."
CF: Knowing both students and human nature, I can see this working well for maybe 10% of the student population, tops.  Let's be  honest here: we are, by nature, procrastinators, which in part is why in-person learning works, why teacher encouragement and face-to-face motivation helps, why the human element is essential. This seems to be corroborated by the low graduation rates of virtual schools (more on this later).
eAA: "[We offer] a wide range of technology-rich class options including honors, AP and elective classes."
CF: Yet, when I look on the eAA website, I see that music offerings consist of music appreciation and music theory - no actual playing of music (this was confirmed by Principal Nettesheim). Furthermore, AP classes have no in-person dimension. Having taken some virtual graduate courses, I can attest that online discussion boards are "to do" tasks rather than rich human interactions. The same can be argued of online science labs. Hands-on learning and face-to-face interactions are essential to higher-order thinking.
eAA: "[We boast] a 10-year track record of success" and have "the best graduation rate of any Wisconsin virtual schools."
CF: When I asked how "success" is defined, I was directed to the website where it became clear that eAA chose its words very carefully:  in comparison to other virtual schools, it does perform well, but in comparison it to Wisconsin brick and mortar schools it fares poorly.  Looking at the most recent comparatives (2011-2012) eAchieve Academy has a 69% graduation rate while Waukesha West High School has a 96% graduation rate and the Wisconsin state average is 89%. This means that eAchieve Academy has a 20% lower graduation rate than the state average and a 28% lower rate than the brick and mortar high school in its own school district. This is a curious definition of "success."
eAA: "Aspiring athletes or performing artists find it difficult to pursue their passions in life when they are stuck in a school building all day."
CF:  Our school buildings (the ones students are "stuck in...all day") contain opportunities for those "aspiring athletes or performing artists" while yours don't. We provide coaches, mentors, teammates, instruction, practices, performances, and competitions. You provide none of these, but instead require parents to become independent contractors seeking (and funding) private lessons, select teams, and other experiences outside of school to supplement their child's education.
eAA: "Students with physical or mental health issues struggle to keep up when they miss class. Kids who don't 'fit in' spend more time worrying about their safety than their studies."
CF:  Here, you are correct. We support students with physical or mental challenges within a mainstreamed classroom environment because research shows that it is essential for student growth and well being to be part of a larger community, to grow in social settings, to gain real world experiences during adolescence instead of being isolated from peers and social interactions. We also believe the issue of bullying is one that must be countered with interventions and education rather than evasion or isolation.
eAA: "Your child does not have to spend another semester in an educational environment that does not match their learning style and individual needs."
CF: I'm curious what "learning styles" and individual needs" can be met by a teacher sitting in front of a computer, juggling a student load of 300.  This sounds to me more like the warehousing of students than meeting individual student needs.
eAA: "Our rigorous, standards-based curriculum fosters critical 21st century skills needed to succeed in college, work and life; skills like self-motivation, time management, independent thinking and problem solving."
CF: This sounds like 95% of  the public school mission statements I've read in recent years. Schools---whatever their shape or size---are exquisitely skilled at writing mission statements. Yet, perhaps the most essential of these "21st century skills" is sorely lacking in virtual schools: collaboration - critical opportunities for students to work cooperatively on authentic problem-solving tasks. Furthermore, employers repeatedly cite "inability to work with others" as a top reason workers are fired. This critical soft skill simply is not developed in a virtual school setting.
eAA: "[We are] empowering Wisconsin families through public education at home."
CF: I wonder how many families are empowered through virtual schools. I wonder how many are actively involved in their child's virtual education experience. I wonder how often---in this financially-trying time---both parents are working while students are unmonitored at home. And I wonder if this, in part, explains the low graduation rates of virtual schools compared to school settings where teachers and support staff are physically present to monitor and help students.  
eAA: "Too often, learning opportunities in traditional schools are hampered by rigid schedules, limited curriculum options, antiquated teaching methods or budget cuts."
CF:  Wow.  You do know, eAchieve Academy, that you are a part of Waukesha Public Schools and, in turn, Wisconsin Public Schools? So why the public school bashing? Aren't we in this together? Or has school choice created a civil war, pitting us against us? A most unfortunate state for education; still, these claims must be challenged:
  • We're "hampered by rigid schedules"? --- You're hampered by a lack of structure (see human nature/procrastination argument above).
  • We have "limited curriculum options"? --- The pot clearly calling the kettle black. I teach at a high school with less than 600 students, yet our course offerings far surpass yours, 48 more to be precise. We have a plethora of offerings to meet student needs from remedial to AP, and we have many courses not offered at eAchieve Academy including live music, hands-on art, physical education classes which are actually physical, tech ed, agriculture, robotics, STEM, and others.
  • "Antiquated teaching methods"? - We integrate technology into our teaching practices instead of largely replacing teachers with technology; we interact face-to-face with our students while leveraging a wide variety of teaching methods: lectures, activities, discussions, labs, interactive web tools, collaborative group work, student presentations and speaking opportunities.
  • "Budget cuts" - Okay, you got me there. Yes, we do have budget cuts thanks to many factors including charter schools such as yours whose advertising tactics and questionable claims do indeed lead to budget cuts. Kudos for taking ownership on that one.
One of several eAchieve Academy mailers sent to my home
Don't misunderstand me. Virtual schools may be a viable alternative for some individuals. What I find objectionable is not the existence of eAchievement Academy, but its barrage of direct mailings, its misleading claims, its the tone of not being with us, but against us.
What's clear here is that schools are being pitted against each other. Wisconsin's broken school funding system is forcing districts to cut corners, to engage in deceptive student-grabbing tactics, to put finances before learning. And once again, it's the students that suffer.
No more mailings please.
I think many would agree - not a prudent use of taxpayer dollars.