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Paul E. Peterson’s Responses to Frequently Asked Questions about Saving Schools and Contemporary Educational Issues

What is the premise of your new book on education?

After decades of centralizing control over our schools, we are on the verge of an educational breakthrough that will customize education to the needs of each student.

In the past we shifted power away from families and communities to larger, more centralized entities—initially to bigger districts and eventually to control by states, courts and the federal government. The schools we have today are so bureaucratized learning has stagnated.

But the good news is that powerful computers, the internet, broadband, open source platforms, three-dimensional visualization and multiple other innovations give us a chance to customize learning to the needs of each student. In high school and middle school, the brick-and-mortar buildings are going to become a supplement to learning online.

How do you propose that occur?

It’s already happening in our colleges and universities. One out of every five students is taking at least one course on line. If 18 year olds can learn this way, 17 year olds can as well. Indeed, a million high school courses are being taken on line today. At Florida Virtual School, 200,000 courses are being taken on line each year, up from less than 20,000 just a few years ago.

But it will take state policies that allow energetic competition between virtual schools and traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

Why has a once-dynamic educational system turned stagnant, or worse?

Since John Dewey nearly every school reform was supposed to help customize education to each student. But instead each reform centralized power in the hands of those who were increasingly remote from the classroom.

The apotheosis of centralization has been No Child Left Behind, with the federal government holding schools accountable because teachers are no longer feel they themselves have the discretion to hold students accountable.

What specific recommendations do you have for federal policy in education?

I support the recent proposal by a Brookings Institution panel calling for a federal accrediting agency for virtual courses. Once accredited, that course can be made available to students nationwide and credit for that course applied to the diploma one is seeking at one’s local school. Parents and students can choose among available courses. Courses must be transparent, and valid accountability systems need to be put into place to make sure that students have learned the content of the course.

The student will be able to decide how, when, and where to learn, but he or she will be held accountable for knowing it. Teachers will become coaches, not enforcers.

(Disclaimer: I was a member of the Brookings panel that made the recommendation)

It’s one year into the Obama Administration. What is your response to the Administration’s education initiatives?

Much better than expected. Many people thought it would listen mainly to the standard education interest groups who contributed so heavily to the Obama campaign.

But the President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have taken on school districts and teacher unions on some pretty big issues—merit pay, dismissal of ineffective teachers, and charter schools.

What do you think of Obama’s I-3 initiative?

This is the most exciting of the Administration’s ideas. Not much money is involved, but the Department of Education is indicating a willingness to consider truly major technological innovations. It is still too early to tell, but this initiative creates the opportunity for truly major innovations that will open up virtual learning to many more students.

For example, the initiative provides an opportunity to respond to the recent Brookings Institution proposal to establish national or regional accrediting agencies for virtual courses.

Is Race to the Top (RTTT) a viable reform strategy? Will this work any better than NCLB?

Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that it relies more on carrots than sticks. The Obama Administration is promising extra money to those states with innovative ideas, whereas NCLB was mainly focused on identifying low performance.

No, in the sense that states get the money based on promises given, not performances proved.

The mixed bag is evident from the first round of RTTT decision making. On the one side, the Department of Education has approved for consideration a number of promising proposals—Florida, Rhode Island and Louisiana, for example. On the other side, it has said it would consider plans in Wisconsin, Ohio and New York that offer little hope of serious change.

We have to wait until the final approval decisions to see whether they want to go in a reform direction or a political direction or, what is probably most likely, a little of both.

Diane Ravitch has a new book out (The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Basic Books, 2010) which confesses she was wrong in supporting choice and accountability. What is your take on these reforms?

We have to move forward, not turn back to the past, as she wants to do, because the past has proven that it just doesn’t work.
In the future, students are going to be learning online, over the Internet with powerful computers accessing open source curriculum through broadband networks that can download vast amounts of information.

For example, biology books today show a dimensional diagram of a frog and then ask students to try to dissect a real frog. In the future the student avatar will dissect a frog avatar, and he or she can perform the dissection 30 times over without killing a single amphibian. It is this kind of new learning experience that is gong to transform the way in which kids learn their life sciences.

Ravitch criticizes charter schools for not being uniformly effective. That is a static vision of a rapidly changing set of schools. I see charters as building blocks to the future.

Ravitch criticizes accountability. I have my reservations about current accountability systems as well, but without the accountability movement we would not have learned how stuck in the mud our schools today actually are.