Where I want to see the potential for intelligent use of data to drive better student outcomes, others see an unnecessary invasion of student privacy driven more by profit motives than quality concerns. I listen to Bill Gates speak about productive uses of educational technology and can't help but be impressed by his turn to philanthropy, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Others seem to see the foundation as a front for corporate and political interests determined to undermine public education and steer profits to private entities, including Microsoft.
It would be easier for me to maintain my optimism if not for some ugly facts, like the recent cynical moves from the Florida legislature. "In 2011, the Legislature made it a requirement for all high school students to complete at least one course online, creating a guaranteed market for online learning services," explains the Miami Herald, and now the other shoe is dropping as the state cuts back per-pupil funding for the publicly operated Florida Virtual School while creating opportunities for private businesses.
Bill Gates speaks about technology and education reform at SXSWEdu.
I've written before about putting my younger kids in a virtual school program run by the Broward County public school system. The Broward Virtual School operates as a franchise of the Florida Virtual School but also offers some programs through K12.com, a private firm. One of the things disturbing things we've noticed about K12.com is that it seems to invest more in marketing and lobbying than in the actual delivery of educational services. For example, the online tools it offers for taking tests and quizzes don't work properly with modern browsers, and rather than fix the problem they direct parents and students to downgrade their software. On the other hand, the public marketing site looks bright and shiny in any browser. What does that tell you about their priorities?
Political disclosure: For the past several years, I've been active in Democratic politics, which is rarely a conflict with technology reporting per se but does mean you're entitled to take my views about the Florida Legislature with a grain of salt. For the record, I do think Gov. Rick Scott bears an uncanny resemblance to Voldemort. I wasn't a big fan of former Gov. Jeb Bush, either, but count the creation of Florida Virtual School as one of the positive things he did. On the other hand, I recognize that some of the motivation for this came from the same place as his promotion of charter schools and various voucher programs aimed at distributing public money to private and religious schools. Bill Gates also tends to be a fan of charter schools, which is one of the reasons some educators distrust him.
Did I mention we also had our kids in a charter school at one point? See, I'm not necessarily a good Democrat, according to the teachers union wing of the party. My wife and I made a date night out of seeing the "Waiting for Superman" movie a couple of years ago and got all riled up over its depiction of public school dysfunction, union protection of incompetents and the cruelty of those lottery systems used to decide which students will be allowed to escape from a crappy regular public school to a superior charter one.
One of the criticisms of the movie was that it depicted charter schools in a way that might lead you to believe all charter schools are superior, led by enlightened principals who succeed because they are freed from bureaucracy and the interference of teachers unions. Unfortunately, while those schools exist (we saw them in the movie!), charter schools are just as likely to be uninspired operations operated by corporations who see siphoning off tax dollars as an easy way to make a buck. Some of them eventually mismanage themselves out of existence, like one local charter school that evaporated mid-year, leaving parents scrambling.