Point, click, learn

Bennett's online school: Best wishes on a worthy, if risky, endeavor

Issue: "Linda Chavez," Jan. 20, 2001

With the announcement a few days ago of William Bennett's formation of "K12," a new nationwide online Internet private school, I couldn't help going back three decades to the time when several of us tried a vastly more modest but similar venture. It was both exhilarating and nightmarish.

Through the 1950s and '60s, my father had devoted much of his energy first to the establishment of a Christian boarding school in rural Iowa and then to the assistance of other parents in many states who wanted non-government Christian education for their sons and daughters. Through both those assignments, Dad winced at the high cost of traditional learning models and formed some strong opinions about how good education might possibly happen with a much smaller price tag.

Again and again, Dad told me: "Seventy years ago, one Iowa farmer typically managed 80 acres and fed just 15 people. Now that same farmer manages 800 or 1,000 acres and feeds 200 people. During that same stretch of time, we've gone from one teacher in a country school teaching all courses to nine grades-and producing one of the highest literacy rates in human history-to a group of highly trained specialists dumbing down virtually every aspect of education. We need some lessons in productivity from the farmers!"

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Assisted by business associate Dean French, Dad proceeded to establish the Cono Educational Network, an unwieldy and short-lived experiment in distance education that was simply ahead of its time. At its peak, it tied together 16 Christian high schools ranging from Iowa to New Jersey and down to Florida. More than 800 students participated every day for several years. With more incompetence than I like to admit, I headmastered one of those network schools.

The genius of the experiment was to thumb our noses at the shibboleth of the importance of low faculty-student ratios. Dad would argue: "Nobody at CBS worries when Walter Cronkite comes on at 6:30 that the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 20 million. What matters is that you've got a master teacher, well trained, and properly equipped to do his job." So a typical teacher on our live, two-way network had as many as 100 students, but only one or two preparations each day instead of half a dozen courses to prepare for. We picked the best teachers from among the 16 participating schools-and gave our students the cream of the crop.

The bottom line, system-wide, was that our students typically tested 50 percent above the national average in the academic gains they made each year. That, in spite of the fact that we had nothing dependable to take the place of a blackboard for long-distance diagramming of sentences or writing chemical equations. That, in spite of the fact that we spanned two time zones, had to compromise on starting and ending hours, and never did figure out how to handle a snow day in Illinois when the sun was shining in Florida.

And all that, in spite of the fact that the Internet was still two decades away. Woefully undercapitalized and understandably unconvincing in our public relations with skeptical parents, we still managed to light the fires of learning in the hearts and minds of several hundred students in the mid-1970s. Some of them still come up to me and say, "Remember when?"

Bill Bennett's K12 project now can take up, not just where some of us left off 20 years ago, but way ahead of the curve. As they do so, and as thousands of us either watch or get involved with K12, here are a few maxims I suggest we all keep in mind with reference to the educational task:

0Good teachers are always the key. And they'd better have some identifiable moral grounding.

0At least 85 percent of the time, low teacher-student ratio is irrelevant. Maintaining it is terribly costly. So identify those circumstances when a low ratio is relevant (and sometimes it is crucial), and save your precious resources for those circumstances.

0Especially in a high-tech age, remember that technology loves to take over. I learned with our network experiment that technology is a wonderful servant-but a lousy boss. Keep it in its place.

0Education, like every field of endeavor, includes many worthy "professionals." The real pros, however, are those who could care less about being referred to and treated like professionals. They are so consumed with the kids themselves that they can think of little else.

Out of a total U.S. investment of $350 billion this year in elementary and secondary education (that's about $6,750 per student), only $1 billion or $2 billion is expected to be spent on online and Internet efforts. But that is projected to quadruple over the next couple of years. The Bennett effort with his friends at K12 is a reminder how critically important it is that such experiments be done by the right people. I will be watching with fascinated, and slightly nostalgic, interest.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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