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How Predatory Reformers Are Destroying Education and Profiting at Our Children's Expense

Online courses can't replace the good old fashioned teaching methods we once pioneered but are now driving Finland's educational success.
 
 
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Several months ago, on a damp gray afternoon, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Racine, Wisconsin, just a few blocks from the Lake Michigan shoreline. That weekend a colleague and I would be conducting a leadership training session with teachers, parents, and community leaders, and I thought I’d get a feel for Racine during my visit. I was the shop’s sole customer. Main Street was nearly deserted. Now and then, a single car or passerby would appear. The city has a busy and curious past: it was a destination for New England Unitarians and record numbers of Danes; residents were staunch opponents of slavery and set up safe stops along the Underground Railroad; reportedly one of the world’s first cars was built there in the early 1870s; malted milk and the garbage disposal were invented and produced there. But signs of that history were nowhere to be found. The city has lost 16,000 occupants since 1970, when 95,000 people lived there.

A few hours later, in a large hall in a Roman Catholic retreat center a few miles up the shore, more than 40 Racine residents were seated in groups of six around large round tables. As part of the session, I circulated a one-pager that we had created as the basis of a drill and asked the group to read it. It began:

The School District has announced that it has signed an agreement with a major online learning company—Future Success, Inc.—and MIT to produce a world-class math curriculum. Because of private capital raised by Future Success, the entire program—equipment, software, laptops for all district students, and even subsidies to support Internet services for families in need—will be provided at no cost to the District for the first two years. . . . Cost savings will be created due to a shift in staffing patterns. In the traditional approach, 116 teachers were needed to deliver math instruction to the district’s students. . . . Only 42 will be needed under the new arrangement.

As the group concentrated on the page, there was a stirring at one of the tables. A fellow in his 50s spoke up. “Hey, wait a minute. This isn’t a drill,” he said. “I teach at the local technical college, and this has already happened to us.” He described how his job as a teacher had changed. He once related to 20 or 30 students in a classroom several times a day to but now was a technician who sat in front of his computer responding to emails from 200 online students and grading online homework and tests.

Changes such as this are happening all over the Midwest. If you spend any time there, away from the Chicago lakefront and the few thriving smaller cities built around major universities, you can see and feel what happens to a region when its past glories have badly faded and no new ones have emerged: dying downtowns, abandoned mills, gardens and vegetable plots in the heart of depopulated inner cities, the most functional remaining factories now operating as modern corporate operations in once-rural areas. Mechanization and globalization have reconfigured agriculture and manufacturing in ways that are easy to discern. Less obvious, less visible, less dramatic is the transformation in education, the Midwest’s third great area of entrepreneurial energy and national leadership.

For about 150 years, the Midwest’s education philosophy—a philosophy that prevailed elsewhere in the United States as well, if less emphatically—was centered on a commitment to preparing students to do useful work. Local people, connected to their communities, built successful schools based in large part on this pragmatic principle. But today this principle is undercut by political demands for ever-shifting versions of reform, by market demands for efficiency, by smothering student debt loads, and by the mistaken priorities of colleges racing for prestige. The debate over improving education—in the Midwest and throughout the country—often seems hopeless, but it turns out that we have long known what to do and are now suffering from the abandonment of the good methods we once pioneered and practiced.

 
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