Reading, Riting, Rithmetic, and R&D

New York City

Lee Fang’s “Selling Schools Out: The Scam of Virtual Education Reform” [Dec. 5, 2011] asserts that under the guise of reforming public education, some companies are hiring high-priced lobbyists and allocating large campaign funds to elect state and local legislators who will vote to give private interests access to the potentially lucrative new “virtual education” field. This effort to politicize local education system decisions is certainly deplorable.

But the article leaves the terribly mistaken impression that all efforts to improve teaching and learning and to reform education through the use of advanced information and digital technologies are part of a plot by educational business interests to privatize public schools, reduce costs, gain access to state education budgets and destroy teachers unions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It would be incredibly shortsighted and just plain stupid in this digital age for the United States to ignore the great potential that advanced information and digital technologies have to improve, extend and transform teaching, learning and skills training at all levels, in and out of school.

For more than a decade former FCC chair Newton Minow, former American Arts Alliance president Anne Murphy and I have chaired the Digital Promise project, a nonprofit nationwide effort to explore how new information technologies that have revolutionized and transformed many aspects of society, can be used to help teachers teach, students learn and adults master new job skills.

In response, Congress, in a rare bipartisan act, established and appropriated modest start-up funds for the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, a nonprofit, independent research enterprise designed, under the Digital Promise label, to do for teaching and learning what the National Science Foundation does for science, the National Institutes for Health do for health and DARPA, the military industry’s research arm, does for defense.

The Center begins to meet the challenge of the lack of R&D in education. The United States spends just a fraction of 1 percent of K-12 costs on R&D today, and what little there is rarely makes it to the classroom.

In the words of its legislation, the Center was created “to support a comprehensive research and development program to harness the increasing capacity of advanced information and digital technologies to improve all levels of learning and education, formal and informal, in order to provide Americans with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global economy.” It is seeking funds not only from public sources but also from leading foundations, philanthropies and citizens in the private sector.

Led by a distinguished board of academics, software experts and public-spirited citizens, Digital Promise has begun its work, evaluating the potential of advanced technologies to improve education and lifelong learning. For example, it recently brought more than twenty-five superintendents of schools together in a League of Innovative Schools to form a partnership of school districts to pilot promising technologies, evaluate them in real time and, if successful, scale them up for use throughout the nation. It is also forming a League of Innovative Teachers to share lessons about what works, and provide feedback to entrepreneurs and developers.

Vice chair, Digital Promise



Fang Replies


America stands to benefit from more innovation in education. Online video instruction can provide rural students with access to otherwise unobtainable coursework, and there are many promising programs that cater to those with unique educational needs.

I’ve received a great deal of feedback on my article on the downside of virtual education reform. In the piece, I documented the lobbying strategies of for-profit virtual schools, detailing how a handful of online learning companies, despite scandals and perpetually poor performance, played a central role in passing more than a dozen education privatization laws in states across the country in 2010. Rather than enacting broad reforms based on the merit of virtual schools, states have rushed through laws under pressure from a sophisticated influence campaign.

Lawrence Grossman, vice chair of Digital Promise, writes that I have unfairly characterized all investments in education technology as a hoax. He claims his group, financed by taxpayer grants and unnamed “citizens in the private sector,” is working to develop the research for education technology much as “DARPA, the military industry’s research arm, does for defense.” While better research is always commendable in formulating public policy, it is important to move forward with more transparency and rules so that students are not exploited for the benefit of Wall Street.

The problem with this fast-moving push for K-12 virtual education is that it has already been tried in higher education. Politicians, including Senator Mike Enzi and Congressman John Boehner, inserted language into appropriation laws nearly a decade ago to allow a greater proportion of taxpayer money to flow to for-profit, often online, career colleges. The result? A massive
$30 billion industry plagued with fraud that has exploited tens of thousands of students for profit. Major firms like Education Management Corporation and University of Phoenix have been caught systematically misleading students, burdening them with colossal debt and leaving them with few employment options. On December 9 the New York Times ran an article headlined “With Lobbying Blitz, For-Profit Colleges Diluted New Rules,” showing that the for-profit college industry waged a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign that largely defeated accountability regulations proposed by the Obama administration.

The privatization of higher education, under the guise of low-cost virtual education technology, came to fruition using many of the same arguments heard today by proponents of K-12 online school reform. As The Hill, a Beltway newspaper, reported in September, the policy priorities for Digital Promise’s first year have been formulated by TechAmerica Foundation, a tech industry lobbying firm. Although Grossman contends that online learning benefits Americans and needs no scrutiny, we must be careful not to allow students to fall victim to another corporate cartel.




NPR Too Middle of the Road?

South Kingstown, R.I.

Re Willard Shapira’s letter [Dec. 19] asking “How about Nation Public Radio?”: Democracy Now! It offers what flies under the mainstream and NPR’s radar.