Virtual School Meanderings

August 5, 2011

Leadership Day 2011 – The McDonaldization Of Public Education

Today marks the fifth Leadership Day 2011. For those unfamiliar, Leadership Day is a blogging activity that my CASTLE colleague Scott McLeod began.  He describes it as:

Many of our school leaders (principals, superintendents, central office administrators) need help when it comes to digital technologies. A lot of help, to be honest. As I’ve noted again and again on this blog, most school administrators don’t know

  • what it means to prepare students for the digital, global world in which we now live;
  • how to recognize, evaluate, and facilitate effective technology usage by students and teachers;
  • what appropriate technology support structures (e.g., budget, staffing, infrastructure, training) look like or how to implement them;
  • how to utilize modern technologies to facilitate communication with internal and external stakeholders;
  • the ways in which learning technologies can improve student learning outcomes;
  • how to utilize technology systems to make their organizations more efficient and effective;
  • and so on…

Administrators’ lack of knowledge is not entirely their fault. Many of them didn’t grow up with computers. Other than basic management or data analysis technologies, many are not using digital tools or online systems on a regular basis. Few have received training from their employers or their university preparation programs on how to use, think about, or be a leader regarding digital technologies.

I have had the opportunity to participate in the last two (see Leadership Day 2009: Advice To An Administrator and Leadership Day 2010 – Advice On Virtual Schooling), where I wrote a letter to administrators advising them on how to implement online learning in their schools in a smart way and where I wrote to administrators to not believe the hype from corporate-minded, educational reformers when it came to online learning.

This year Scott provided a series of prompts to get us thinking and it is one of these questions that I wish to briefly take up in this space today.

When it comes to K-12 technology leadership, where do we need new knowledge, understanding, training, or research?

You see, it was only in the last week or two that Ray Rose and I were discussing the merits of online teaching endorsements to state-based teacher certification, which lead to a conversation about what we thought teacher education should look like if it were to truly to prepare teachers for the demands of teaching in the twenty-first century.  One of the comments that Ray made during this discussion was that there was a need for a greater level of leadership within our schools on this front, and he challenged those of us in higher education to create a virtual school leadership program.  I invited Scott to join the discussion and while he agreed with the sentiment, he was less enthusiastic about this kind of university-based program for school leaders.  The conversation died down with my comment that I didn’t see why one or more universities couldn’t come together and partner on creating this kind of specialized initiative.

As I read this specific prompt that Scott provided, I was reminded of this conversation because of the reasons I would argue in a proposal for such a program.  Simply put, today’s school leaders do not have enough knowledge and training in being able to evaluate online and blended learning opportunities.

At present, the decision to use online or blended learning is often made because of economics or pressure from the competitive practices of for-profit companies as they begin to dominant the public education sphere.  Rarely are decisions to use online or blended learning made for strictly pedagogical reasons.  Even when those decisions have a hint of pedagogical rationale, the leadership of the school is often not in a position to fully understand the nuances in the design, delivery and support provided by different online and blended learning providers.  In much the same way that teaching students in a classroom using a single pedagogical strategy is likely to leave some students behind, online and blended learning that is designed, delivered and supported in a specific manner is also likely to leave some students behind.  As Rick Ferdig noted in his keynote to the 7th Annual Michigan Virtual University Online Learning Symposium in 2010, there are some courses that are better suited to online delivery than others and there are some topics that are better suited to online delivery than others.  During the keynote, he noted that research has shown that students in the online environment tend to do as well or better than their classroom counterparts in Algebra I, but not so much in Algebra II.  Rick argued that researchers should stop these simple comparisons and begin to ask questions about why this was the case.  Are there more independent resources for Algebra I that the students can find on their own than there are for Algebra II?  Are there significant differences in what is asked of the students in Algebra I than in Algebra II that make one more suited for online delivery?  Is the manner in which we have traditionally offered online learning just better suited to the objectives of Algebra I?  While Rick asked several additional questions, and even speculated on why this trend may have occurred, it underscored the basic point that in the same way there are many differences in classroom instruction, there are also many differences in the variety of online and blended learning opportunities that are available.

As I have stated in many venues, certain types of online learning tend to cater to one type of student, while other types of online learning seem to be better suited for other types of learners. For example, the traditional supplemental model of virtual schooling where students spend a portion of their school day unsupervised in a computer lab, learning resource center or distance education room where they complete one or more online courses and interact with a teacher primarily in an asynchronous fashion has been quite successful with the higher ability, self-directed, self-motivated students (the kinds of students that would generally enroll in the Advanced Placement, higher level mathematics and science, or foreign language courses).  By the same token, many schools have had success with creating a supervised computer lab where students complete credit recovery courses using a database-driven online learning program (i.e., the online Skinner box).  Many of those struggling students that find success with the database courses would not be able to manage their own learning in the traditional supplemental model.  Similarly, many of those higher performing students would be bored and unengaged in the database-driven courses.

But how much of this are school leaders actually aware of?  I know when I work with schools here in Michigan (both online and brick-and-mortar), with the exception of a couple of the online programs that have been doing this for a while, money is often the overriding factor in deciding what online learning program or vendor to use.  I realize that this is the overarching goal of the educational reform movement, to ensure that our public schools become free market entities and economics are the underlying driver for all decisions.  And this is fine, if all we want from our schools is to produce the same quality of students as the quality of food produced by McDonald’s.  Sure it is cheap and you know what you’re going to get because regardless of who is making your Big Mac it will come out roughly the same, but it is hardly considered fine dining.  The same is true of bottomline thinking when it comes to online and blended learning.

Without knowledgeable school leaders to make pedagogical-based decisions about the method and medium that instruction should be designed, delivered and supported, all we will be left with is the continued McDonaldization of public education.


  1. Great thoughts. I like the McDonaldization concept and I too see it going that direction. Pearson and the other big content providers are going to choose and package up some options and people will just choose their order number. One of the things that really bothers me is that we are going to miss this fabulous opportunity to do content totally differently in education because we cannot get out of the mental framework of the previous content delivery system.

    Comment by Justin Bathon — August 5, 2011 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

  2. Justin, I’d use K12, Inc. as a better example in my field (as opposed to Pearson). Beyond the content delivery system issue, my biggest issue is the widget-like aspect of the content these for-profit corporations provide.

    Comment by mkbnl — August 5, 2011 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  3. […] 2011 – The McDonaldization Of Public Education […]

    Pingback by Leadership Day 2012: Equipping Administrators To Better Understand K-12 Online Learning « Virtual School Meanderings — August 15, 2012 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  4. […] 2011 – The McDonaldization Of Public Education (also A Response To iNACOL’s “Leadership Day 2010: Online And Blended Learning”) […]

    Pingback by Leadership Day 2013 – Pedagogy, Not Economics | Virtual School Meanderings — August 15, 2013 @ 2:08 pm | Reply

  5. […] 2011 – The McDonaldization Of Public Education (also A Response To iNACOL’s “Leadership Day 2010: Online And Blended Learning”) […]

    Pingback by Leadership Day 2014: Educational Leadership and Virtual Schooling | Virtual School Meanderings — August 15, 2014 @ 11:21 am | Reply

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