I wrote the paragraphs below nearly five years ago. Besides changing a few names, how much revision is needed to make the observations accurate in mid-2015? Perhaps we haven’t been running in place, but I am convinced that we are fighting the wrong battle in the last war.
“Microfiche,” the 14-year-old asked, staring at the machines tucked away in the New York Public Library? “What’s microfiche?”
How many people under age 30 could explain it? Her question is a powerful reminder of how technology has turned learning on its head. Just a few years ago, libraries and schools were the places that stored knowledge—on microfiche, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in the heads of the adults in charge. We had to go there to gain access to that knowledge.
Not any more. Today knowledge and information are everywhere, 24/7, thanks to the Internet. Unless libraries have been closed because of budget cuts, they have adapted to this new world. Most have become multi-purpose centers with Internet access that distribute books, audio books and DVD’s. Librarians encourage patrons to ask questions, because they need to keep the public coming through their doors.
By contrast, schools remain a monopoly, places where children are expected to answer questions, by filling in the bubbles or blanks and by speaking up when called upon.
Providing access to knowledge, one of three historical justifications for schools, no longer applies in the usual sense. Of course, children need teachers to help them learn to read and master numbers, but, beyond that, a new approach is required. More about that later.
A second justification, socialization, has also been turned on its head by technology. Today’s kids don’t need school for socialization in the usual sense of learning to get along with their peers in the building. Why? Because there are Apps for that, dozens of them, including Facebook, FarmVille, MySpace and so on, and so ‘socialization’ takes on new meanings when kids routinely text with ‘friends they’ve never met’ across the continent or an ocean. Again, schools must adapt to this new reality.
Only custodial care, the third historical justification for school, remains unchanged. Parents still need places to send their children to keep them safe. So does the larger society, which has rejected child labor and does not want kids on the streets.
But when schools provide only custodial care and a marginal education that denies technology’s reach and power, young people walk away, as at least 6,000 do every school day, for an annual dropout total of over 1 million.
And, unfortunately, some of those who remain in marginal schools will find themselves in danger, because the youthful energy that ought to be devoted to meaningful learning will inevitably be released, somewhere. Often it comes out in bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of child abuse by children. That is, marginal education often produces dangerous schools.
Unfortunately, those in charge of public education have not been paying attention to these seismic changes. Instead they are warring over teacher competence, test scores, merit pay and union rules, issues that are fundamentally irrelevant to the world children live in.
Who are these warriors?
On one side in this battle is a cadre of prominent superintendents and wealthy hedge fund managers. Led by New York’s Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, 15 leading school superintendents issued a 1379-word manifesto in October 2010 asserting that the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers “has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.”
This side believes in charter schools, Teach for America, and paying teachers based on their students’ test scores. Publicly pushing this “free market” line is a powerful trio: Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” movie; NBC’s semi-journalistic exercise, “Education Nation;” and Oprah Winfrey. And if one movie isn’t enough, this side also has “The Lottery” in the wings.
It has identified the villains: bad teachers and the evil unions that protect them, particularly Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers.
The other side is clearly outnumbered: The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two teacher unions; many teachers and some Democrats. Its villains are No Child Left Behind and its narrow focus on bubble test scores in reading and math. This side’s far weaker megaphone is wielded by historian Diane Ravitch, a former Bush education policy-maker turned apostate. …….
But what’s most striking about this bitter battle is its irrelevance. The adults in charge are fighting the last war, and whoever wins doesn’t really matter to the millions of young people now being denied on a daily basis the learning opportunities that modern technology affords.
Our young people should be learning how to deal with the flood of information that surrounds them. They need guidance separating wheat from chaff. They need help formulating questions, and they need to develop the habit of seeking answers, not regurgitating them. They should be going to schools that expect them to discover, build, and cooperate.
Instead, most of them are stuck in institutions that expect them to memorize the periodic table, the names of 50 state capitals and the major rivers of the United States.
That’s what I wrote five years ago. Since that time, Diane Ravitch’s megaphone has proved to have an astounding reach , and Dr. Ravitch herself has only grown stronger, despite a serious knee injury and the normal physical challenges that age brings. Joel Klein has moved on, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” has been thoroughly discredited as a propaganda film with staged scenes, “Education Nation” has been shelved, MySpace has disappeared, and the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top” has supplanted “No Child Left Behind” as the left’s federal whipping boy.
When I wrote those words in 2010, the Common Core State Standards existed on a drawing board. Today, they’re under attack by critics from left, right and center. The catalyst for the current battle was the CC testing now being administered. The ensuing “Opt Out” movement seems likely to lead to cuts in the number and frequency of standardized testing.
Just being opposed to ‘excessive testing’ is not enough, but, unfortunately, very few educators are addressing the fundamental irrelevance of schools, which was my point five years ago.
This rebellion will lead to less regurgitation, but no one who cares about the future of our democracy should be satisfied with that small step. It’s time for schools to enter the 21st Century, which, in my view, means embracing both “blended learning” and “project-based learning.”
We will always have schools, where working parents will send their kids. Beyond that, everything has to change. Young people’s bodies may be within a building, but their brains should be engaged with students across town, in other cities and around the globe. Young people can and should be doing real work. Discovering, not parroting.
Do any of the declared or likely presidential candidates get this? Any governors or mayors? Educational leaders?
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