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Transforming Education in the US: Advice for President Obama

I went to a well-attended event in Boston, The Transforming Healthcare Summit 2009: Impact & Opportunity in the Obama Plan, with an illustrious panel who completely blew the most interesting question they were asked: If you were the new US Secretary of Health and Human Services, what is the first thing you would say to President Obama?
Let’s ask the same question about education. I formulated my own panel of experts, posed the question, “If you are the new Secretary of Education, what is the first thing you would tell President Obama?”, and here’s what they said:
Jay Cross: Mr. President, primary and secondary education in our nation are broken. They are not preparing our citizens to live in the modern world. Primary schools shield children from communities and real life, walling them off from the subjects we want them to master. And as Bill Gates said, “All of the evidence indicates that our high schools are no longer a path to opportunity and success, but a barrier to both.” Our great country has one of the lowest rates of high school graduation in the industrialized world.
Our nation’s schools need to be re-thought, re-designed, and re-engineered from the ground up. We probably need to change them from being our many counties’ schools, held back by the drag of parochialism, into a coherent, more unified arrangement. This takes fire in the belly. I am instructing every member of the Department of Education to read John Taylor Gattos’s Dumbing Us Down and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.
Sir, you might put them on your reading stack, too. If schools are not preparing the citizenry to lead fulfilling, meaningful lives — to be all that they can be — what are they for?
The staff here is already working to undo the damage done by the absurd focus on testing and other bad baggage from the No Child Left Behind mess we inherited from the W regime.
Curt Bonk: I second Jay’s notion of reading Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (New York: Marion Boyars. 1970). Add to that Charles Wedemeyer’s Learning at the Back Door: Reflections on Non-traditional Learning in the Lifespan (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. 1981) and Seymou Papert’s Mindstorms.
Karl Kapp: President Obama, while I applaud your focus on “green” energy and job creation, these measures are being put into place only to address symptoms of a deeper and more pervasive problem. The problem is that our educational institutions are out-of-date with the realities of today’s world. They have failed us by creating MBA students more focused on personal gain than the good of the country, they have failed us in keeping competitive in the world, they have failed us in creating organizations that are adaptive to change, they have failed us in preparing our students for the future.
Our current classroom-based teaching institutions are modeled after the traditional university structure which was appropriate 100 years ago but is inadequate for children who are carrying around cell phones more powerful than the super computers of only a few decades ago.
While in some cases, in class delivery methods have been “updated” with PowerPoint, animations and videos, the primary model for instructional delivery in elementary, grade and university level is lecture-driven with the instructor holding all the knowledge which he or she delivers to the students.
The seemingly universal instructional development model is one in which faculty members develop and deliver instruction they believe would be appropriate and of interest to their students with little input from outside voices – the employers who hire the graduates or the next level of school that further educates the students. Little effort is made to follow up on the outcomes of the instruction. No one knows if one degree from a particular college is better than another. There are no objective criteria except for price and the next bubble is the University and College cost bubble. I predict it will break within the next 5 years. The current cost structure and pedagogical models are unsustainable.
New models are needed – ones that focuses on measurable academic goals and targets a specific outcomes, encourages creativity, innovative thinking and appropriate application of technology. The new models must rethink the face-to-face classroom instruction and, instead, turn learning into a life long process.
Allison Rossett: So glad that you asked my opinion, President Obama. I’ve been wanting to speak to you, and here is my opportunity. Do please write back. I’ll watch for it.
I am just back from Singapore. What I saw influences my thoughts. No, they are not deschooling or making learning particularly more authentic or even using all that much technology. What they are doing is being very, very clear about what is expected and measuring the heck out of their students in light of those outcomes. Then feedback, then options linked to performance.
I can hear my colleagues squealing. Sounds like test, tests and more tests. Have you lost your mind, Rossett? Don’t you want students to be free to pursue their interests and creativity?
I do. I favor independence, problems, authenticity, projects, and collaboration as the heart of instruction. I wish we could deliver that to all students and that they would nutritiously and consistently partake of such a feast.
But it is not working well, not here, not now, not for many youth I see here in California. Jay Cross mentioned drop outs, just to point to one indicator.
I think we must invest in national standards and matching tests. Let the fight begin over how those assessments would look and what outcomes they would treasure. There would be disagreements about dead white male literature, memorization or aided performance, reading vs drama, one language vs many and so on and so forth.
While I don’t care for bubble tests and weeks devoted to testing, I do know that we all work better when we have transparency about what is being achieved – and what is not. That means tests that are reliably interpreted by teachers, principals, parents, and taxpayers.
I do favor education that slowly increases freedom, choices and independence, over time, as skills and knowledge are acquired. If you don’t read or write well or plan well or work well with a team, just how good are you going to be at problem based learning? Well, the group might “validate” you and the teacher might smile, but you know you have problems and you would rather be anywhere than where you are experiencing doubts about your competence.
That’s it, Mr. President. Great universal tests and perhaps linked tutorials to prep students for success.
It’s not smaller classrooms or even more money, not right off the bat. Let’s start with establishing a shared definition of success at all levels, with room for local priorities and differences. Then we can talk about class size, technology, and money, yes, even incentives for teachers.
Mark Notess; Mr. President, I would like to offer a small but significant recommendation. Last year, the new post-9/11 GI Bill was passed and will fully take effect later this year. One provision of that bill prohibits payment of living stipends to veterans enrolled in wholly online programs. The notion that online or even correspondence study is inferior or requires less work is antiquated. The technology of instruction says little about its quality or the amount of work required. The Department of Education can identify standards of higher education, such as accreditation by reputable accreditation bodies, which will better serve to indicate true full-time study and the need for living stipends than does mode of instruction. Please work to amend the Bill, removing the penalty for fully online study.

101 Responses

  1. Hi Lisa-
    Before I left for a class yesterday (I

  2. Hi Lisa-
    Before I left for a class yesterday (I

  3. Mr. President:
    I have not heard back from you on the letter I sent you back on December 1st about the world becoming more open for learning and to see if you wanted to read a preview copy of my book, �The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education.� It is ok, I know you are busy with this economic crisis. I can dust off my CPA license if you need help there but I prefer not to.
    I actually believe you can skip those boring meetings with economic advisors. Instead, take a look at the educational possibilities of the Web. As you know from your Blackberry days (which I guess you still have), the Web is transforming education in front of our eyes. When I saw you give your speech here in Bloomington last April 30th, I felt a sense that you realized this and so I voted for you instead of Hillary (despite several quite convincing arguments from my extremely insightful friend, Jay Cross). Now that you have won, you need people in the Department of Education who can help you (and me) make sense of this transformation. I think that there are ten trends that are of particular importance. They spell the acronym, WE-ALL-LEARN. I list them for you below.
    Ten Openers: (WE-ALL-LEARN)
    1. Web Searching in the World of e-Books
    2. E-Learning and Blended Learning
    3. Availability of Open Source and Free Software
    4. Leveraged Resources and OpenCourseWare
    5. Learning Object Repositories and Portals
    6. Learner Participation in Open Information Communities
    7. Electronic Collaboration
    8. Alternate Reality Learning
    9. Real-Time Mobility and Portability
    10. Networks of Personalized Learning
    If any one of these trends would have happened in the past, it would have been a dramatic change in education. In fact, if just one person had learned online in 1959 (50 years ago), that person would have been Time�s person of the year. And that is just one trend or opener (opener #2)! But all ten openers are happening simultaneously. Instead of the new players, playing fields, and management processes that Thomas Friedman discusses in his World is Flat book, in education we have a different set of �p�s��piping, pages of content, and a participatory learning culture. This is a triple convergence that any of the previous 43 presidents would have loved to see happening in such an economic crisis. Again, I am happy to send you my book if you want to read it.
    So instead of more back to the basics and adding still more test scores and assessments, we have to open doors to learning and make that the focus. Active and contributory learning where learners have a voice in their own learning pursuits should underlie all educational reform efforts, not comparisons to other countries, previous test scores, or some other set of silly statistics. In contrast to smaller countries or those with fewer natural resources which are forced to standardize everything, in the United States we need an educational system that fosters learning that you cannot plan for or preprescribe. Simply put, we need to focus on creativity, innovation, ambition, and perpetual learning and human development. We need motivated younger as well as older learners. To attain such goals, we need educational leaders who ignite a passion for learning. And for those in Asia and other countries who are bored with traditional teach and test educational methods all-too-common in such places, we can open our doors. As Thomas Friedman called for two weeks ago in the NY Times, allow millions more smart people from China, Korea, India, and other countries to immigrant to the USA and build the next Google�s, Livemocha�s, and Yahoo!�s. If we can combine more creative people coming into the country with an educational system focused on nurturing creative talent, watch out world, we will be the ones solving the world�s problems! Is no doubt!
    The time is ripe for so many things. Education can lead us out of this economic crisis. For the first time in the history of this country, our education leaders are simultaneously our economic leaders, not the other way around. As the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade suggested, �choose wisely .� If you do, then WE-ALL-LEARN. I wish you well. And I also wish that we all do, in fact, learn.
    Curt Bonk

  4. Dear Mr. President,
    If you can read this, you did not attend elementary, middle, junior high or high school in Detroit.
    While I do not think that schools ought to get a free-pass on everything, I do think that the ACLU has done at least as much harm as it has done good in our schools. It has made it very difficult for schools to eliminate firearms and illicit drugs and to punish students firmly for minor infractions. About the only effective option that remains is expulsion … and that harpoons the goal of providing an education, does it not?
    E-learning is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN until the needs of basic literacy have been met and until the scourge of on-line pornography has been dealt with. To move forward earlier is to ask our children to wade through a cesspool where the only thing they understand are the graphic depictions of sex.

  5. Allow me, please, the favor of a postscript.
    I heartily endorse the recommended reading list Jay Cross and Curt Bonk offer.
    I have read online excerpts from Mr. Gatto’s book and I am trusting that the others are in the same vein. If so, Mr. President, push all the other books off your desk until you have read these.
    Our schools ARE broken. They do not need tweaking; they need scrapping.
    Like General Sherman, Mr. President, you need to march to the sea, destroying anything in your path that does not clearly work toward the end goal of providing a quality education for every student able to absorb one. America is getting its tail kicked in the world market and the problem starts in our kindergartens.
    If people had understood the financial doo-doo those junk mortgages represented, do you think they would have signed them? Even greed is usually tempered by the sense of self-preservation.
    At the very least we SHOULD return to the techniques of 100 years ago in the elementary grades. The teaching methodologies we have been using for the past 40 years or so have not been working. Kids arrive in high school still struggling with elementary and junior high topics.
    They are told to make an outline — but never taught how. A square or cube root of a number is only a function on a calculator and has no connection to the reality of long (very long!) division. They know that George Washington crossed the Delaware in the winter but can’t find New Jersey on the map, even if they live in Trenton.
    Class size is only a problem if the students actually show up. The real issue is parental apathy that doesn’t insure that the children are both present and prepared. You need to fix both. Having 40 students assigned to a classroom is absurd; having them actually show up (unprepared) is insanity.
    Television, radios, CD-players and cell-phones need to be turned off. Likewise computers, unless they are a necessary tool for preparing an assignment. Good lighting and a clean, quiet environment need to be provided at an assigned time EVERY school night. Parents need to check homework for completeness even if they don’t feel qualified to check it for accuracy.
    Mr. President, nothing you do in the school will work until you can make these changes in the home. Rich people already do these things. Poor people do not, and that is how they stay poor from one generation to the next.
    I tutor a young man in English. Ninth grade English, to be precise. His mother, who carries a Masters Degree in Communications, does not feel qualified to teach him composition.
    It’s worth repeating that her degree is in communication, but she does not feel qualified to teach him how to compose a paragraph. Too, it’s not as if illiteracy is a genetic trait or a learned experience in her family. Her father was a highly successful playwright. DAGS for Ronald Milner.
    Literacy, it would seem, came to a screeching halt just about the time new ‘teaching modalities’ came into common use.
    So, while she is just 10 years younger than me, that’s two generations lost.
    I have a high school diploma (from a suburban school) and a couple of junior college classes. Yet, I can teach him composition and grammar. Are my skills perfect? No. But, they are better, judging from the assignments she has sent home, than those of his English teacher.
    I bought my home 8 years ago and paid it off last month.
    I wonder what sort of mortgage his English teacher has.

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