Thursday, January 5, 2012

Online Ed: Trojan Horse for Destroying Teachers Unions

Beware of Capitalist Bearing Gifts of Cheap Canned Curricula (Image from Flickr, by Perfecto Insecto)
Idaho teachers and parents are pissed off: Last year, their state Legislature passed a law requiring all high school students to take some online classes to graduate, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. They also mandated that students and teachers be given laptops or tablets to take and manage these online courses. In order to pay for the hardware the state will likely have to slash teachers’ wages. Adding insult to injury, the state expects teachers to manage the online classes, simultaneously adding extra responsibilities and deskilling the teaching profession.

In response, teachers marched on the capital last year to oppose the legislation, accusing lawmakers of being in bed with lobbyists from the tech industry like Intel and Apple. Together with parent groups they gathered 75,000 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in November to overturn the law.

Online education is one of numerous education reforms currently being pushed by billionaire philanthropists and education entrepreneurial vultures. Supporters argue that it opens up doors for students, providing opportunities to take classes not normally offered at their school, make up classes that they have failed or get ahead. Many also make the claim that kids today are so hooked up to their electronic devices that flesh and blood teachers can’t motivate them anymore, but inanimate computers miraculously can.

While there is no compelling data to support the claim that online courses are better motivators or more effective teachers, one might reasonably ask what’s the harm in letting kids voluntarily take a few online classes at home or on weekends to makeup missing credits or to get ahead, especially if it is the parents’ responsibility to pay for the courses and there is no extra burden placed on school districts and teachers?

In Idaho and many other states, however, the opposite is happening, with online classes being imposed on students, parents, teachers and school districts, without their consent. Everyone pays for these programs because the funding comes from tax dollars. It is a Trojan horse for education privatizers who recognize they can’t outright privatize the education system, but can make billions of dollars by using their lobbying muscle to convince legislators to transfer tax dollars from education budgets directly into their pockets. It is a pretty safe investment, too, since they get millions of obligate consumers (i.e., students). Of course it is even better when the online courses are made a mandatory graduation requirement, as in Idaho. Furthermore, once they have sold their product to a school district, they can lock the district into their hardware and software for years or even decades.

For teachers, managing online courses could be trivial, or not, depending on the course, the software and the technical support provided. However, it certainly deskills and trivializes their profession, turning them into over-trained babysitters, whose main job is to make sure students are working, staying on-task, and not surfing the web and messing around on Facebook. Every minute that a teacher gives up to an online course is a minute that the teacher has relinquished his or her expertise and responsibility for teaching to Microsoft, Apple, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, or some other corporate Ed Deformer, whose objectives are profits, not the wellbeing of students.

Perhaps more insidious are the long-term implications for teachers’ salaries and collective bargaining. So-called “unskilled” and “semi-skilled” workers typically earn less money and have less organized strength than their “skilled” allies because they are more easily replaced by the bosses. Car and electronics manufacturers, for example, can easily export assembly line jobs overseas because little training and expertise are required to handle the work. As teaching and other occupations become deskilled, workers in these fields also lose collective strength for similar reasons. (For more on how this can weaken teachers’ unions, please see Carnegie, Steel and the Busting of Teacher Unions ...)

Consider school librarians, who are being replaced by parents, volunteers and non-credentialed staff in order to save money (see “Less Than 25% of California Schools Have Librarians”). In the past, schools hired librarians who were credentialed and trained both as teachers and librarians and who could deliver curricula and collaborate with teachers to design and implement complex research projects. Today, many school districts are treating librarians like retail checkout clerks, whose only responsibilities are to swipe barcodes on books and prevent theft.

Once online classes become a mandated and normal part of school, the door is opened to getting rid of teachers entirely. What need is there for a highly trained, unionized teachers to make sure a room full of kids is completing an online assignment that was prepared and will be assessed by a private corporation? Districts will argue that the job can be done noncredentialed and lower-paid proctors, which will save the districts lots of money and force more teachers into the unemployment lines. They will also be able to use the threat of downsizing as leverage against the unions to extract pay and benefits cuts and increased responsibilities and work for the teachers.

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