A Conflicted Conservative and Online Learning

By 03/11/2013

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There is tension inherent in being a conservative education reformer.

On the one hand, I’m a strident advocate for grand change. For example, my book is about ridding ourselves of traditional urban school districts. I strongly support charters and vouchers. I believe in overhauling teacher evaluation systems and much of the policy architecture they undergird (preparation, credentialing, compensation, tenure, etc.). I’ve written recently about my growing belief that SEAs are outdated.

I firmly believe that these reforms are in the best interest of kids, especially disadvantaged boys and girls.  But I suspect these views get encouragement from my right-of-center worldview: that government programs are generally clumsy and expensive and often have regrettable and far-reaching unintended consequences; that it’s wise to hold entities accountable for achieving results by using measurable performance indicators that inform consequences; and that markets are generally efficient, nimble, and responsive to consumer needs and create space for the kinds of entrepreneurial activity that generate continuous improvement.

This is the second of three pieces to show how this conceptual friction actually rears its head in the real policy world—the first was on school closures, the third will be on ESEA reauthorization and NCLB waivers.

Recently, in a sotto voce conversation, I articulated these reservations to one of ed reform’s smartest and most successful innovators. I was doing a lousy job explaining myself. I eventually used the public housing and wetlands examples I wrote about here and then explained that this all probably emanates from my conservatism.

But the other half of my conservatism means I generally believe in preserving things that have been around for a while. As I wrote in this piece about prudent school-closure policies, there is often invisible but incalculable value in institutions and practices that have survived the test of time.

Even if they seem weathered on the outside, below their surfaces can dwell vast, unseen virtues. And like the roots of an old tree in an old forest, they are part of a much larger, healthy, interdependent ecosystem. Pull a single, dangling thread on any expensive sweater and see how quickly the entire fabric warps.

And while there are, of course, examples of longstanding institutions and practices that are deficient and/or are founded on unjust principles, I find that longevity more commonly reflects a positive equilibrium. Things last because lots of other things have been tested over decades (sometimes centuries), and we’ve settled on arrangements that are good and sensible.

But here I want to briefly discuss my apprehension about our growing fascination with and devotion to online and blended learning.

I’ve  that I’m behind the pack in this area because I’ve seen other K–12 innovation crushes turn into heartbreak and disappointment—the hot new thing doesn’t always lead to the outcomes we want. So this branch of concern is based more on my results-oriented “Missouri mentality” (the “Show-me” state) than anything high-minded.

But even if every single online and hybrid program generated great achievement results for today’s participating students, I’d still be leery.

See, many reformers say things like, “Our schools and classrooms look the same as they did 100 years ago!” This, they assume, is a devastating blow—the ultimate argument for change. Heck, the world has changed in countless ways over the last century; our schools need to follow suit!

But what I hear is a) we must’ve landed on something pretty robust, and b) radical change will be the equivalent of aggressively yanking on a bunch of sweater threads simultaneously.

Online and blended learning alter some of the most basic characteristics of traditional schooling. They change the relationship between student and teacher, student and student, student and device, family and school. They call into question the necessity of neighborhood school buildings, traditional administrators, central offices, and school boards.

My unease stems from my expectation that we will evaluate these innovations by looking at immediate test score gains and cost savings. Those are important, for sure. But the ripples of fundamentally altering such a hoary institution extend much, much farther.

What invaluable but invisible lessons are transmitted to children through the traditional classroom model that might be lost through “individualized” learning? (Humility? Trust in adults? Communal tackling of challenges?)

Does decreased reliance on human-to-human contact early in a person’s life contribute to the degradation of social bonds that serve as the foundation of civil society?

This person—truly as smart and thoughtful as they come—in what I think was genuine self-effacement, lit up, smiled half-sheepishly, and said, “We progressive technocrats just don’t think like that.”

This basic difference in worldview is something, I think, worth discussion.

As I’ve lamented, to little avail, most ed-reform organizations are now led by teams that are overwhelmingly left-of-center. For some reason, they’ve yet to internalize that it might have merit to include conservatives in their definitions of diversity.

But if an organization—actually, if our entire field—is dominated by “progressive technocrats” who believe there is a straight line between smart hypothesis, nuanced government action, and tidy social result, then we’re probably going to ask entirely too infrequently questions like those I suggest above.

The first half of my conservatism eggs on my advocacy for big, bold reforms. But the second half reminds me that this faith in technocratic tinkering must be leavened by skepticism of state action and deference to the wisdom of preceding crowds.

There are too few conservatives in education reform today. This has worrisome implications for the long-term sustainability of our work.

But the need for more of the “standing-athwart-history-yelling-stop” kind grows more acute as our field’s policy prescriptions increasingly meddle with things that have—at least heretofore—stood the test of time.

—Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute”s blog.

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