“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
So sang Bob Dylan in “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” but the public schools are in desperate need of a weatherman, someone to point out that they are moving in the wrong direction. I grant that K-12 education is tougher and more complex than higher education, but that’s no excuse for what’s going on. It seems to me that most of the world is moving one way — and American K-12 education the other.
Some parts of higher education have figured out which way the wind is blowing and are moving aggressively to adapt to a changing world. Tamar Lewin of the New York Times provided a solid overview of the rapid expansion of massive open online courses (MOOCs) recently. The eye-opener was Stanford’s free artificial intelligence course last year; it attracted 160,00 students from 190 countries.
Today many of the nation’s leading universities are involved in one or more of the online learning efforts, pioneered by MIT and Harvard several years ago. Here’s a partial list: Duke, Johns Hopkins, Cal Tech, Michigan, Princeton and Rice. Richard DeMillo, the director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech, told The Times, “This is the tsunami.”
Many questions remain unanswered: How will students receive credit? How much will courses cost? What’s to prevent cheating? However, lots of smart people are working on those problems now, and institutions like Western Governors University, which is entirely on line, have carved out a trail.
The MOOC phenomenon — the prospect of millions of students studying online — threatens much of traditional higher education, particularly the less prestigious but nonetheless very expensive private colleges. Expect a shake-up even as opportunities expand for millions.
Higher education has huge advantages over K-12. It’s voluntary, and its clients are adults. Elementary and secondary schools must provide custodial care, and they are charged with the complex task of helping grow adults, in addition to teaching reading, math and other essential skills. ‘E pluribus unum’ is not part of the mandate at the University of Bridgeport or Yale, while learning to be a citizen is assumed to be part of the public school curriculum.
So what’s going on in K-12 education? Well, it is jumping feet first into the Common Core, an approach that accelerates schools on the path that they have been on since “A Nation at Risk” in 1983: higher standards and a more ‘rigorous’ curriculum.
The federal government has invested millions into developing ‘better’ tests, but they are also more expensive, which means that many states are supposed to spend additional millions on testing.
What’s more, the Common Core will eventually expand testing into the lower grades and more subjects. This will benefit Pearson and other testing companies and keep the test-makers employed, but the money will have to come from somewhere else in the budget, because no new education dollars are available. That’s likely to mean larger classes and cuts in ‘frills’ like PE and the arts. Or schools may continue to use cheap tests, which will not be aligned with the Common Core. That will mean disappointing test scores, more public disillusionment with schools, and so on.
The old Miller Lite TV Ad campaign keeps running through my head. These were funny faux debates, where one person would say “Tastes Great,” and the other would disagree by shouting, “Less Filling.” In my nightmare, we are going to end up with young people who “Test Great” but whose knowledge is “Less Filling.”
Joel Klein has a perceptive column in Time Magazine this week, cautioning against complacency. He’s upset because some people are cheering small upticks in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and I agree. I would go further to suggest that the basic flat-line scores of the past 40 or so years on NAEP are strong evidence that our approach to ‘School Reform’ has been and is fundamentally flawed. Wrong-headed. And leading us seriously astray.
It’s not too late to change direction. In nearly 40 years of reporting about education, I have seen FOUR programs that work well. Happily, they are not mutually exclusive. Two are elementary school programs, one is pre-school, and the fourth high school.
This is what I would do if I were in charge: every elementary school would adopt James Comer’s approach, meaning that all the adults would be trained in child development and would be able to provide the nurturing and supportive environment that is found in successful families. At the program’s height, about 1,000 Comer Schools were operating around the nation, giving poor children the supports they need to be successful. You can read more about Comer Schools here. Jim Comer, an MD and a Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale, is nearly 78, and his schools have been saving children since 1968.
The second program that would co-exist in all elementary schools, if I had my way, is E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge. The Core Knowledge curriculum prescribes roughly half of what every child should study, leaving the rest to the local and state authorities. Don Hirsch, now in his 80’s, recognized back in the 1970’s that, for all children to have a fair chance at succeeding in life, all must have a common ‘vocabulary’ of knowledge. All kids must be exposed to the rich ‘curriculum’ that middle and upper class children acquire at home.
I find it revealing that neither Dr. Comer nor Professor Hirsch is a professional educator. Perhaps education is too important to be left to educators, after all. Don was the classic mild-mannered Professor of English at the University of Virginia when he had his epiphany.
(Full disclosure: I consider both men to be friends, although our friendship grew out of my admiration for their programs, which I first met as a reporter.)
Quality pre-school is such a no-brainer that I am baffled by our national failure to insist on programs. We know that poor children start school years behind their affluent peers, and we know that well-planned programs close those gaps. Presidents regularly talk the talk, but that’s as far as it goes. I’ve seen really good programs in Chicago, France and Spain, but there are plenty of other examples.
Here’s a piece we did for PBS NewsHour in April 2011:
Is money for pre-school the issue? If so, then my fourth change can help with that. Early College High School is another long-overdue change. Everyone knows that American high schools aren’t working for most kids, who put in the required seat time so they can be with their friends, participate in extracurricular activities, and get that piece of paper. Where high school students can begin their college (or technical) education early, good things happen. We reported on this recently for the PBS, but this is not unique to south Texas.
About 10% of high school students are taking college courses in Minnesota, New York and elsewhere. I would open up “early college” to anyone who’s motivated, because it’s a win-win all around.
Eventually, in this approach, senior year will disappear, and perhaps junior year as well, as education becomes seamless. The savings should be used for pre-school programs.
I don’t foresee MOOC’s in high school, but technology must be pervasive. Kids will still be coming to buildings, but their studies should take them outside the walls. Students in Berlin — Germany, Connecticut and New Hampshire — could be working together on projects. Columbus, Georgia, and Columbus, Ohio-you get the idea. Young musicians in different towns could be practicing together on Skype. And so on.
My four changes won’t solve the problems of poverty, poor nutrition, substandard housing and inadequate health care, but they will open doors for more children, doors that I believe our current approach is closing.
We should be asking “Who Benefits?” when the wind blows as it does. I see a lot of so-called experts making a decent living ‘turning around’ schools, and the test-makers must be smiling all the way to the bank. However, teachers aren’t benefitting from the pressure to raise test scores or be fired. Students learn the cruelest lesson of all: at the end of the day, they are test scores, numbers to be manipulated.
“Tests Great, Less Filling” is not a campaign we should get behind.