In a recent dinner discussion with my sophomore twins we discussed this in terms of what it was like back in our day — a day without cellphones, the Internet, laptops, GPS, texting, tweeting or Facebook — way back in the (gasp!) 1980s. If you have kids you’ve been there. It’s a systemic reaction exhibited when they realize their 10:30 a.m. summer slumber fest is now being rudely interrupted with a 6 a.m. wake-up call from their iPhone. To this I say sometimes change is good.
We never could have imagined the world in which we’d bring up our future children. I thought we’d have the flying cars that Popular Science promised us, and we’d certainly have colonized the moon, complete with a corner Starbucks. It’s curious that our advancements have focused more on our terrestrial existence. Our new cars have more onboard technology than the Apollo spacecraft, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be flying them to work anytime soon.
How does this dynamic feed into education, you might ask? We’ve all seen the commercials claiming that the U.S. ranks somewhere around 17th with all industrialized nations in educational achievement, a dismal ranking we can all agree. Why is it that the very nation that established itself as a world leader in “smarts” during the Space Race is now not even among the top 10 for education, and even further down the list for math and science?
It’s a complex answer for sure, and frankly I don’t think anyone can point to one root cause, but rather a number of complex issues that feed into the problem.
Beginning in 2001 with No Child Left Behind, followed by Race to the Top, Common Core Standards, and other well-intentioned programs have made attempts to resolve the educational dilemma. There are pros and cons to each, but none have provided a sustainable solution, at least not yet.
A fellow school board member recently discussed a program in Kalamazoo, Mich., that was delivering results to improve graduation rates. It’s apparently working, but it is costly and supported almost entirely by the private sector. There is another program called Blended Learning that involves the use of online content and leveraged teacher interaction to allow self-paced student education. We are piloting this program with 40 seventh-graders in our district this year, and we’ll see how that program works.
Beyond these, there are many other programs in trial across the country, and with each one we are learning, adjusting and redefining educational models to move closer to a solution. This is good. I like it when we’re trying new things. It means we’re doing our job.
The question we need to ask, however, is what really represents success when it comes to K-12 education in the United States? On being asked how he felt about repeatedly failing to design a working light bulb, Thomas Edison replied, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The message about learning from failure is important, but it’s also a future directive for our educational evolution.
Edison’s carbon filament light bulb was ultimately a great success, but it has been improved and reinvented 1,000 times over in the past 130 years as its applications have changed and technology moves forward. Put this in the context of education and you can see how the move away from printed textbooks is beginning to take shape as schools move to electronic text. Tablets and iPads will soon serve students as customized, dynamic learning tools available 24 hours a day. I think Edison would be very pleased — he never slept.
There is no single silver bullet solution for improving education, nor will one ever exist. Technology and globalization will constantly morph the educational framework and learning needs of our children, and we will have to adapt through trial and error to keep education relevant and successful for each new generation. Education, along with health care, immigration, crime, poverty and other societal issues will always be the target of scrutiny and debate; it’s simply the world we live in.
Let’s accept that we are making progress in education, and we need to measure that progress not by an international stack ranking, but one successful student at a time. For in the end, our mission is to prepare each generation for life success. That’s change we can all be happy with.
Tom Cheater is vice chairman of the Marietta school board.