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The Trouble with Distance

In the 1990s, Harvard government professor Paul E. Peterson became the nation’s most outspoken academic supporter of private school vouchers. His battles—with teachers unions and other researchers—were vicious. One ugly dispute with a University of Wisconsin professor over the results of Milwaukee’s experimental voucher program landed him on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Now, in the twilight of his career, Peterson has partially backed away from vouchers and in his new book, Saving Schools, he explains his new enthusiasm: online learning in elementary and secondary education.

In making the case for a novel education reform, Saving Schools embraces a familiar framework, with a twist. He begins, as many education books do, with an extended explanation of why he thinks nothing else has worked to improve learning, but he chooses an interesting lens: the lives of six giants in American education. Peterson includes chapters on Horace Mann and the rise of public education; John Dewey and the use of progressive teaching approaches; Martin Luther King, Jr. and efforts to desegregate public schools; Albert Shanker and the advent of collective bargaining for teachers; William Bennett and efforts to make schools accountable; and sociologist James Colman and the benefits of Catholic education and private school vouchers.

Peterson’s writing is spry. The personal vignettes about these six reformers make for interesting reading. And the sweeping narrative takes on all the great controversial issues in American education. But in trying to clear the brush and make way for his favored idea—learning through online internet courses rather than in a traditional classroom—Peterson frequently overstates the case against previous reforms.

For example, Peterson dismisses school desegregation, saying it “was not, by itself, even under the best of circumstances, going to create an effective, egalitarian education system.” He notes that even in the integrated schools of Shaker Heights, Ohio, almost all white students passed the tenth grade reading and math graduation tests in 2008, but only 65 percent of black pupils did so in math and 76 percent in reading. This gap is troubling, to be sure, but Peterson fails to mention that Shaker Heights blacks outperformed blacks statewide by 13 percentage points in math and nine percentage points in reading. Or that nationally, low-income students in more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students in high poverty schools. Peterson does observe that blacks and Hispanics increased their test scores substantially in reading in the 1970s and 1980s—but neglects to mention that this was precisely the period when our nation’s schools were substantially more integrated than they were before then or since.

True, desegregation in places like Boston was a failure because it mixed poor whites and poor blacks and spawned white flight by not giving parents any say in the matter of where their children went to school. But policies today are more sophisticated, relying on choice and magnet schools to produce integration. And today’s plans emphasize socioeconomic status more than race, tracking research finding that while blacks do not learn more from sitting next to whites, low-income students of all races do better in middle-class school environments.       

Likewise, Peterson overstates the case against collective bargaining for teachers. He begins his chapter on Albert Shanker and the rise of teachers unions by citing a provision in the New York City contract that teachers cannot be required to supervise the lunchroom. But why is this so outrageous? Does Peterson want to help police rowdy students at the Harvard-Yale football game? If teachers are to be valued professionals, they need time to carefully prepare lesson plans and consult with colleagues on teaching strategies rather than babysit in the cafeteria. Peterson is also annoyed that teachers unions have pushed up education expenditures by reducing class size, but some research supports this policy and parents certainly embrace it.

To his credit, however, Peterson also acknowledges the limitations of policies he favors to promote accountability, vouchers and charters. He cites serious problems with the No Child Left Behind Act, including the lack of consequences for students if they fail state tests. He quotes Shanker, “Imagine saying we should shut down a hospital and fire its staff because not all of its patients became healthy—but never demanding that the patients also look out for themselves by eating properly, exercising, and laying off cigarettes.” Peterson doesn’t pull a Diane Ravitch-style U-turn on vouchers, but he does acknowledge that “the voucher movement stalled somewhere in the first decade of the twenty-first century” in part because “a number of new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally,” and because the results in Milwaukee were not “as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped.” Likewise, “the jury on charter schools,” Peterson writes, “is still out.”

By contrast, Peterson has sky-high hopes for online learning. Technology, he writes, could provide “the opportunity to save American education from its historic limitations.” Virtual learning is transforming American education, he says, “for the first time, in a profoundly new way.” By allowing students to take courses online, and proceed at their own pace, education can be customized as never before, Peterson says. Distance learning will drive down labor costs, and save taxpayers money. And online courses have the potential to liberate the quality of education from a student’s zip code by, for example, allowing rural and low-income urban students access to AP classes now clustered in suburban schools.

Peterson’s online learning hero is Julie Young, the CEO of the Florida Virtual School, founded in 1997. Next to the likes of Mann, Dewey, King, Shanker, Bennett and Coleman, Young may seem out of her league, but to Peterson, she represents the future of education. Young’s Florida Virtual School, a state-operated institution which was strongly supported by Republican Governor Jeb Bush, is “the most successful internet-based school in the country,” says Peterson. With an annual operating budget of $50 million, the school has taught more than 100,000 completed courses since it began. Most students take classes as a supplement to their traditional school courses, but it is possible to take all of one’s classes online.  Out of state students are charged a fee for classes.

Peterson’s shiny new idea, however, looks suspiciously like vouchers dressed up electronically. Online learning provides a way to privatize public education, opening it up to for-profit operators. Teachers in virtual schools will be fewer in number and because they are dispersed will be harder to organize, thereby reducing the power of teachers unions. Although Young takes what Peterson admiringly calls a “stealth strategy,” presenting online learning as a non-threatening supplement to public schools rather than a replacement, Peterson seems to envision something bolder.

Whether disguised or not, full-fledged online learning schools would appear to pose the same dangers as private school vouchers, only more so. Some of the intellectual vitality of face-to-face discussions with teachers and classmates is likely to be lost when students are off taking their own online courses, but so is the ability to teach children of all different backgrounds what they have in common as Americans.  Education isn’t just about maximizing student choice and catering to “consumer” interests; it is about fostering democratic citizenship, which is why all taxpayers fund public schools.  What kind of social cohesion and national identity is forged from a system in which children sit in front of computers isolated from one another?

Moreover, like vouchers, online learning is theoretically egalitarian but could further stratify society, as the wealthy and educated exploit new technology before low-income and working-class students do. In the short run, at least, Peterson concedes that the advantaged will adapt first. “The rich were the first to smoke and the first to quit,” he notes. Moreover, just as Facebook and MySpace attract different social classes, so wealthy students may gravitate toward certain virtual schools and courses, apart from low income pupils. And, as the educator Thomas Toch has noted, the disadvantaged are most in need of school as a physical place, providing structure and supportive adults, and will likely suffer from a movement to virtual education.

Ultimately, the framework of the book undermines Peterson’s own argument. Readers are likely to be jarred by his pivot from two hundred pages of grumpy conservative skepticism about anything working in education to the final chapter in which Peterson swoons for Julie Young’s online schools. Retired teachers, who remember the promised “revolutionary” impact of the film strip and other education fads, are likely to be skeptical. In fact, our national history suggests improving educational outcomes is very difficult work. Finding solutions is even harder when the diagnosis mistakenly suggests teachers unions—rather than poverty and segregation—are at the heart of the problem.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.