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The Cost Savings of Eliminating Classroom Management

The headline is intriguing: In one tech-heavy cyber school, a low-tech strategy spurs learning.

What is this amazing low-tech strategy that's filling the gaps in cyber-learning? And what, precisely, does "spurs learning" mean?

Well, the answer to the second question is pretty obvious: The test scores are above average for the little kiddos (and at the top of the heap for high school students). Ergo, success! Take heed and replicate!

But what is the low-tech secret sauce that this revolutionary school has patented to overcome the disadvantages of kids never meeting their teachers or classmates face to face? Answer: the teachers are sitting in the same office, as they're managing their on-line classes. A nondescript place that looks "more like a sales call center than a school."

While Michigan Connections teachers are allowed to work from home if they're under the weather or the road conditions are poor, the office setting allows valuable collaboration.

(Bonus! Teachers can work when they're sick.)

Teachers can poke their heads above the adjoining cubicle wall when they need help with a student, rather than being "locked in their classrooms" all day, said third-grade teacher Roberts. Teachers in the same grade or subject don't have to wait until after school hours or for a planning period to meet - they can simply roll chairs together or stand in a cubicle aisle.

"One of the neatest things is we're able to have more in-depth conversations with our staff in terms of instructional leadership because we have (more flexible) schedules. We meet with our staff every three weeks, look at their instructional metrics."

So it's valuable for teachers to be physically present and connected to their peers, but not so important for kids? But--wouldn't students wouldn't also benefit from putting their heads together with peers and having in-depth conversations about literature or democracy or fractions?

The slanted characterization of isolated teachers being "locked in their classrooms" all day is unfortunate. And this egg-crate model is something we actually can and do address, right now, in bricks-and-mortar buildings, given leadership with the will to make it happen, and recognition of the genuine value of teacher collaboration around students' learning.

Aren't these children are missing out on a whole lot of other factors, associated with the concept of school: free play at recess, art/music/physical education, going to the school library, field trips, encountering new and different people who may become their friends, fun assemblies? What about leadership opportunities-- the student council or the safety patrol? Aren't they important?Connections has an answer for that: 


New families are connected to returning families who know the ropes. There are numerous field trips around the state, where students meet to go to a zoo or park, and students can join clubs or play chess with students at 37 other Connections schools in 27 states.

In other words, Connections outsources clubs and special events to parents--and counts on technology to pick up the slack. So much for school as the hub of small rural communities, or neighborhoods.

Notice: This is not distance learning. Distance learning is not new-and is a viable option for children whose families live far away from their local schools. Schools in remote areas have been using available technologies to increase academic options for their students since the 1980s, providing instruction in world languages, voc-tech, AP courses, etc. to enrich students' curricular experiences--while maintaining a physical presence in the community for plays, concerts, basketball and the PTA.

Nor is this "flipped" education, where teachers use technology tools to increase communication with parents, and use more classroom time to interact with kids instead of lecturing.

Let's cut to the heart of this school's philosophy:

 Elementary teachers at the academy have between 25 and 40 students. Forty is a lot of students in a traditional elementary classroom, but online teachers can effectively manage more because they don't have to spend time on "classroom management."

No mention of the salary these teachers are making for accepting responsibility for 40 students (and their test results). No mention of who is providing "control" over students' daily learning environment--or what happens to kids whose households are not conducive to absorbing concepts via seeing their teacher for a half-hour a day on Skype-- or families who don't have the hardware or bandwidth to participate in a first-grade webinar. No mention of special learning needs. And of course, no mention of the profit ratio achieved by dumping transportation, athletics, and the arts--not to mention heating a building-- from the equation.

The Center for Michigan's Bridge magazine, which produced this story about "spurring learning" while monitoring teachers' performance and instructional metrics, did print a much more truthful companion piece, entitled Three years later, jury still out on Michigan's cyber school expansion.

I think the jury has seen plenty of evidence that cyber schools are likely the school governance model most susceptible to fraud and failure. The glittery shine of "technological innovation" still masks a lot of bad practice and corruption. And finding one school where the scores are high, and teachers believe that the freedom to get out their cubicles occasionally is a bonus--that's not best practice in investigative journalism.

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