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1% Find Creative Ways to Profit from Our Schools -- At What Cost to Our Kids?

Rupert Murdoch's sudden interest in America's school system does not bode well.
 
 
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Banish the image of a classic American classroom from your mind—chalkboard, desks and all. The future of education has arrived, and next-era classrooms look like, well, call centers: students seated at individual corrals, some with headphones on, being taught and drilled on quadratic equations while a teacher monitors their progress from behind her own computer. With such individualized learning, students can absorb and master subjects “tailored to their pace and needs.”

That was the picture painted by billionaire businessman Rupert Murdoch when he spoke last week at a two-day conference in San Francisco hosted by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education reform outfit. Murdoch was there, he admitted upfront, as “a businessman” ready to move into the education market. Murdoch’s News Corp. has been quietly developing virtual-learning and technology-driven products for K through 12 schools, and with his address Murdoch made his first large public splash into an arena he’s valued at  $500 billion. For entrepreneurs big and small, American public school reform has become a prime business opportunity.

And with help from lawmakers nurtured under Gov. Bush’s legislative guidance, it’ll soon be easier to pick up some of that cash. In an era of declining state budgets and in the face of an urgent educational crisis, Bush argued, now is the time for policy that allows schools to educate their students with cutting-edge digital programs that teach, test and track the progress of school kids for a fraction of the cost of traditional public schools. Bush urged the 750 attendees, most of them state and local school superintendents, education entrepreneurs and lawmakers from state legislatures, to  pave the way for schools to adopt digital learning initiatives.

Conveniently, Murdoch and other businesspeople entering the education sector were on hand to sell their wares.

“Digital gives us the means to transform the dismal status quo—and to do it quickly,” Murdoch said during his address. “And it can give school districts a way to improve performance in the classroom while saving their taxpayers money.” Already, Murdoch noted, private companies like Rocketship Schools serving a predominantly low-income, student of color population in San Jose, Calif., have posted stellar test scores using this very model.

The day before, the local teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco, picketed outside the conference, the sidewalks simmering in the hot autumn sun, with signs that read: “Public education is a right, not a profit center!” and “What kind of country bails out banks and closes schools?”

But in the cool, air conditioned meeting rooms of the hotel—where teachers were noticeably absent—startups and the world’s largest corporations were pitched as the salvation of America’s schools. And in the hands of the nation’s most aggressive state lawmakers and reformers, it became an entirely seductive line of reasoning.

High school students at the privately run charter Carpe Diem School in Yuma, Ariz., for instance, have been able to exceed state standards for reading and math. And they’d done it at an average cost of $5,300 per student per year, a significant discount to the national average, which hovers around  $10,000. The school’s “digigogy,” in the words of its founder Rick Ogston, involved what’s called blended learning, a mix of digital instruction and traditional in-person classroom instruction.

The head of Rocketship Education, whose schools Murdoch praised in his speech, said the organization of Rocketship classrooms is the foundation of its success in northern California schools. “We all know that when students learn things that are developmentally appropriate for where each of them are, they learn things much faster than if you teach to the middle,” said John Danner. Danner explained that digital learning—together with a flexible bell schedule, focused parent and community engagement and intensely focused professional development of its teaching staff—had allowed its predominantly low-income student body to post fantastic test scores.

 
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