Services for Schools, Educators, and Families

Umbridging: Outsourcing and the Threat to the Heart of Schools


The other day I wrote here about outsourcing, the tendency in schools these days to hand over responsibility for a myriad of institutional tasks to third-party vendors whose efficiencies and expertise ostensibly make it easier, and maybe cheaper, for schools to let someone else do it.

In the previous post I purposely avoided the elephant in the faculty common room, online learning. Plenty of excellent schools are outsourcing some of their instruction these days, a handful through experienced independent-school-created organizations like the Online School for Girls and Global Online Academy. These providers, in particular, appeal because their credentials, and their people, are pretty well known within the independent school community; if you will, we can validate the quality of their offerings based on our own experience. (As can I with regard to the professional development offerings of O.S.G. and of Powerful Learning Practice, with which I have personal experience.)

A raft of other vendors of online learning, however, are out there, and it’s going to be a matter of trial and error to vet the ones to which we’re most confidently going to send our students for that advanced math or language course that our school cannot offer.

Similarly, we are probably going to have to figure out by experience how to deal with the MOOC universe; will we grant credit or placement to a student for an EdX or Udacity badge? What about more sui generis MOOCs, which are popping up here and there? What will these things all mean?

There are those who cheerily view the proliferation of online learning experiences and MOOC badges as harbingers, if not proximate causes, of the death of the education system as we know it, and to some degree they may be correct. A couple of decades of experience with corporate training—a realm where online instruction is well established—have proven that concrete skills and techniques are susceptible to instruction delivered from a screen to a motivated learner, especially if the subject matter has instrumental value (as in, a new skill = a promotion or raise) to the student. Khan Academy seem to operate on this same kind of straightforward transactional psychology.

(It will be interesting, incidentally, whether the new SAT will really be quite so straightforward in itself that diligent application of the salve of Khan will enable significantly improved performance. The College Board’s rhetoric implies that anyone will be able to study up to a 1600, which would—it seems to me—be both statistically impossible and undesirable from the perspective of the test’s end users, the colleges who use scores to sort applicants. Or more strangely: If it proves possible for students to study their way to a high score, then the norms on which scores are based will become more and more stringent; the 1600 scorer of 2017 might be the 1350 scorer of 2024.)

There is of course the other kind of MOOC, the exploratory MOOC or xMOOC or whatever this month’s terminology is, in which the online community engages in collective and collaborative inquiry and explication of a particular problem. These can be scaled down into courses with the look and feel of high school seminars of the junior and senior year (“The Coming of Age Novel in America,” say, or “Studies in Genocide”), and rich and emotionally vibrant learning communities can be built around their themes.

Technology is going to make it easier to outsource instruction in ways that will bring more and more emotional depth to online and blended classrooms; this is a key and worthy objective of the Online School for Girls and the Global Online Academy, and I am confident that they, and in time perhaps other providers, have the depth of knowledge and understanding to do it properly.

But read, if you will, a sampling of the best narrative comments on elementary or middle school student work written by the most effective teachers at your school—assuming, of course, that you work in a school where teachers write narrative comments. Ask yourself a simple question: Could this comment have been written about a student working in an online environment?

The work of most independent school teachers—advising, coaching, looking after the fortunes of student clubs, and in some cases supervising dormitories (often referred to as “dorm parenting,” to go right to the work’s emotional content)—goes far, far beyond the basic function of classroom teaching and the simple transmission of knowledge, skills, and understandings that the popular mind has fixated on as “what teachers do.” Much of this is true for teachers in any kind of setting, private, public, or charter.

What we forget is that the work of students in schools is equally complicated. Children in their pre-college years inhabit a bubbling 24/7 stew of developmental needs, opportunities, and challenges, and all of the other aspects of school life—the exploration of new ideas and ways of seeing the world, the sports, clubs, advisories, mealtimes, and above all friendships—are “growth experiences” in which the attentive, measured, perceptive mediation of adults is critically important. So important, in fact, that it is surely the essence of the “value proposition” that has families spending big bucks to obtain a certain brand of it for their private school children and certainly so important that it is the thing about their school days that most adults remember most vividly. This work, combined with the work that teachers do in “the affective domain,” is the heart of school.

It would be a challenge for schools to outsource this heart, but I see plenty of signs of willingness to toss it out entirely. The focus of so much of the current reform movement on instruction and testing indicates to me that the heart of schools doesn’t much matter to the reformers, and the wholesale closing of schools, dismissal of teachers, and expansion of class sizes works precisely against the really important heart work of providing settings for the mission-based, intentionally supported growth and development of children.

I’ve floated a new term of art on Twitter: to umbridge. Verb transitive: to tear the heart from a school or educational setting in the name of academic reform. Etymology: from Dolores Umbridge, the cold-hearted “reformer” who nearly ripped the life out of Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling.

So let us not even think about outsourcing heart, and let us think even less about umbridging it. Let’s remember that kids (and teachers, too) are human beings inhabiting vital communities and not just participants in instructional transactions with solely economic or vocational value.

I’m not so worried about the private sector here. The anti-heart forces trying to umbridge our public schools only make independent schools more attractive for those who can afford them. This is the sickest potential outcome of school “reform”: that not only are the least affluent communities and the least affluent schools in danger of having heartful schools ripped away from them, but that in the end the children of socioeconomic “haves” might be further advantaged as emotional “haves,” as well.

  1. Peter, great post. I agree that public education will suffer from umbridge if they abandon the fundamentals of teaching and learning in favor of online education. For independent.schools that understand the heart of education, online and blended learning will enhance the already high caliber of interactions between adults and kids.

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    • Indeed, I worry far less about independent schools that are exploring educational models to incorporate online and blended learning into mission-driven academic programs. My main worry is for public and charter systems that are embracing an ECONOMIC model to umbridge schools by using technology to devalue human, heartful teaching and mentoring and moving toward larger classes, ever more standardized testing, and–worst of all, in my view–extracting profits for third-party operators.