Reason Writers Around Town: Katherine Mangu-Ward in WaPo on Abandoning Blackboards and Getting Education Online


In The Washington Post this Sunday, Senior Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward explains why we should stop worrying and learn to love online education for K-12 kids:

Deep within America's collective consciousness, there is a little red schoolhouse. Inside, obedient children sit in rows, eagerly absorbing lessons as a kind, wise teacher writes on the blackboard. Shiny apples are offered as tokens of respect and gratitude.

The reality of American education is often quite different. Beige classrooms are filled with note-passers and texters, who casually ignore teachers struggling to make it to the end of the 50-minute period. Smart kids are bored, and slower kids are left behind. Anxiety about standardized tests is high, and scores are consistently low. National surveys find that parents despair over the quality of education in the United States—and they're right to, as test results confirm again and again.

But just as most Americans disapprove of congressional shenanigans while harboring some affection for their own representative, parents tend to say that their child's teacher is pretty good. Most people have mixed feelings about their own school days, but our national romance with teachers is deep and long-standing. Which is why the idea of kids staring at computers instead of teachers makes parents and politicians extremely nervous.

However, it's time to take online education seriously—because we've tried everything else.

Read all about it here.

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  1. The primary utility of schools is to provide childcare so that parents can work. Any education is usually incidental and serves mainly to keep children busy during the day. The “babysitter” and “disciplinarian” roles that the article derides are the real reason we have teachers.

    Of course, we could do things the way the article recommends, and have one parent stay home to watch over 1-3 kids as they did their schoolwork online. But that’s much less efficient than having that parent work and taking advantage of the economies of scale involved with schooling.

    1. High schoolers don’t need babysitting during the day other than to keep them off teh evul drugs.

      1. It does deter gang activity in the inner city…

        Imagine what those kids would do with way too much time on their hands.

      2. In loco parentis is a social function, even if it’s not widely acknowledged as such.

    2. Mandatory schooling (though not paying for it) is also popular with senior citizens – they have the malls to themselves when school is in session. Retail merchants are also aware of this.

    3. True, but “free daycare” and “free education” elicit very different responses in people. One is more explicitly a middle class entitlement program.

      And the economies of scale are mainly in the daycare part — otherwise, we wouldn’t keep seeing complaints from all parties about class sizes and lack of direct attention from teachers.

  2. Beige classrooms…

    Beige? When I grew up the cinder-blocks were either, puke-yellow, or institutional-green.

  3. I agree the education system needs to be reformed, but online education isn’t the solution to the problems. Certain subjects simply can’t be taught online – specifically the STEM subjects.

    The solution is to separate the smart kids who are bored from the kids who are being left behind because they require two different kinds of instruction.

    The charter schools are probably the best thing to happen to public education.

    With sports and athletics, the best coaches are the ones who were mediocre athletes who worked their ass off to get good at their sport. With academia, the best teachers are going to be the ones who aren’t naturally brilliant, but had to work their ass off in school to be successful.

    A teaching degree doesn’t qualify you for much. Kids need to be taught calculus and physics in high school to get a leg up in college. A teaching degree doesn’t prepare you for higher level mathematics and science.

  4. And future kids will look back at the kids today and imagine the fun they had

    1. I remember that story. Of course, kids could just go play with kids in their neighborhood. This “socialization” crap is crap. Unless they mean it in the political sense. Then I’d say it’s working.

  5. With academia, the best teachers are going to be the ones who aren’t naturally brilliant, but had to work their ass off in school to be successful.

    The free market disagrees with that statement. The best private schools tend to have teachers with good pedigrees. Private tutoring shops, like Kaplan, tend to exclusively hire people with excellent test scores. One would think if this wasn’t an effective model, someone would fill in with people who didn’t do as well.

    KMW is falling in the trap of new = better. For example, are the kids in the FVS solely learning online or is it supplementary? If it’s the latter, it’s not at all surprising that they’re doing better (not to mention are you making an apples to apples comparison).

    I think online education is a fine thing to do as a supplementary thing, but let’s not go whole hog into it lest we end up with New Math 2.0.

  6. Another problem not mentioned in the article is that the two-parents-working is now the model, not the exception. There will still be a need for a physical “warehouse” for many kids.

    However, I agree with the general premise that the potential of online education in the K-12 ranks is far beyond what is currently being tried.

  7. For what it’s worth, here’s a golden oldie from my blog: “I deeply resent my schooling?and you should resent yours.” Scroll down the comment thread to read my vigorous debate with “Will,” a fairly typical pro-school progressive.


    All I know is that this guy has saved my ass on the number of finer points I have forgotten in more than one subject. As a semi old guy it never ceases to amaze me the availability and ease of information today. There really is no excuse for ignorance in the short term other than laziness.

  9. Online courses work well for students who are disciplined and self-motivated. Sadly, most schoolchildren do not fit this description.

    The biggest and most important step to improving schools is getting rid of the 5-10% of kids who are incorrigible troublemakers and who take up 90% of a teacher’s time. We need to end mandatory attendance after age 12, and have the ability to send home–or at least send away–students who won’t behave.

    We also need to do away with the fake egalitarianism and give good students the chance to be challenged instead of boring them to tears.

    1. We need to end mandatory attendance after age 12, and have the ability to send home–or at least send away–students who won’t behave.

      Where are you going to send them? Prison? The streets, where they can cause more trouble for more people? At least when they’re disrupting class, they’re relatively harmless to the rest of society.

      1. Where are you going to send them? Prison? The streets, where they can cause more trouble for more people?

        In the past, sending them to the military was a good option.

        Just sayin’

        1. Or a more military-based or vocational-based school. Not everyone is made for or wants to be made for a typical classroom.

    2. At least when they’re disrupting class, they’re relatively harmless to the rest of society.

      Unless you’re one of the kids whose education is disrupted. Spartacus got it right – problem children need to be separated. But there also needs to be oversight of the teachers to prevent them from gaming the system to get rid of kids they don’t like.

    3. Here’s a story. My son graduates this year. I am proud to say he will be valedictorian of his class. He got a 100% on his AP math regents. 80% of his class failed the test. He got a 98% on his AP Bio regents. 60% of his class failed the test. Who’s responsibility is it that so many of the kids did terribly? The teachers? If so, then why did kids like my son do so well? At a certain point it just becomes too painfully obvious that the parents and the students themselves bear a large amount of the responsibility for learning and succeeding in school.

    4. But we can’t leave any children behind.

  10. 2 points:

    1) Online learning will advance only as fast as employers/universities come to accept it as an alternative to regular schooling. If online learning was super effective, but no one would hire you or admit you to their college, then it doesn’t make sense to attend online.

    2) Online learning has the potential to remove scarcity in the same way as in other industries. Now, if there is a great professor, only a certain number of people can attend his/her lectures. They are the ones in the right place at the right time. If the lectures are put online, the distribution costs go to near $0 and people everywhere can view them at any time. If the local chemistry teacher stinks it would be possible to watch lectures from the best in the country.

    Obviously some subjects are more suited to online lectures than others. As online learning progresses, though, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some subjects are covered even better in an online environment. A physics professor could use 3D graphics to add force vectors to an experiment for example. Something that isn’t possible in a live lecture.

  11. Government schools serve four major purposes:

    1) Indoctrination and socialization of children to think and behave in the manner most conducive to the interest of the State
    2) Employment of teachers and administrators who are agents of the State
    3) Supervision of children while their parents are at work and paying taxes to the State
    4) Education of children to the extent necessary to become economically productive citizens of the State.

    Online education has potential only to improve the fourth purpose, but could threaten to exceed the minimal level education conducive to the interests of the State. Since online education is a big Fail on the first, second, and third purposes of education, it will probably come to nothing more than just another BS add-on to the traditional curriculum at government schools.

    For home schoolers, however, online education has enormous potential. Home schoolers have been using the Internet as a resource for about fifteen years.

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