U.S. Education Is Getting Worse, Not Better

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note: The following article originated as a comment (12.3.11) to Frank Withrow’s “The US Needs a Federal Learning Technology Program”  (12.2.11). -Editor]

If only we could have such a utopian society. Advocating government actions in the face of a government wherein many of its minions are set on dismantling the Department of Education seems a bit quixotic to me.

That said, I have specific issues with the initiatives proposed. R&D should not focus solely on social media content programs. That’s a limited perspective at best. There’s so much more to the potential for education technology. We can hardly claim that social media will not play a role, but we can discuss the magnitude of the role as well as its specific nature.

I’m all for broadband across all communities in the U.S. It’s not going to happen overnight however much we have to have it yesterday. Until it happens, online educational programs must be functional at lower bandwidths, and those communities with less bandwidth must be subsidized until they get the high speeds they deserve. This concept might possibly get past the political gridlock we’re seeing these days.

OK, how will you make the general public and “all elements” of the educational community aware of anything without spending lots of money on marketing? It’s just too easy to say these things. I’d be happy to see the money being spent on politically motivated nationwide competitions used in better ways. I just don’t believe that the will is there. That’s why I’ve written a book* on the subject of improving science education in the U.S.

Respecting assessment, it’s again easy to say “authentic,” but who decides on what is and is not authentic?

Overall, this prescription for fixing education relies too much on what’s been tried and failed. I see a pattern of attempts to fix education over the last three decades that uses all of these very well intentioned words and phrases but accomplishes little. It’s not because the ideas might work, it’s because the system won’t allow them to AND because some are just not viable here.

I’ll give away my book’s ending a little bit here. Think about America’s culture, what we, as a nation, revere. Think about what has put us at the top of the world. Forget about conferences and committees and bureaucrats. They won’t help us unless we hold their feet to the fire.

Instead, think of Edison, Jefferson, Franklin, Bell, Fulton, Whitney, Simon Newcomb, and, in a more modern vein, Jobs. Yet, none of these people really did anything special for education. Where are our education innovators? Where is the Thomas Edison of education? Why can we not name one?

We’ve lost our belief in education as something that works to improve us all. We may have lost our belief in any such thing and turned to the Ayn Rand philosophy that we must each look out for ourselves. However, that way is contrary to the very word, society.

Journals such as this are so very important at this crossroads in history because they shine a light on the one possibility for THIS nation to fix its ills. Many ways can fix education. Finland proved that fact conclusively. However, we lack the political will to take the Finland path.

The American way is through innovation and entrepreneurship, through leadership that inspires millions to work together to make something different, not by simply ceding our dollars to government agencies. We must have this government and pay for it. However, we must also watch over it and tell it when it’s wrong.

Today, we have people trying to take the cream of our youth and the scarce dollars of our citizens and put them into private educational facilities. That leaves so many behind with inadequate funds to educate them properly. Every child deserves a first-class education no matter what their zip code.

Technology can do that. Unleash edupreneurs by funding them through government programs that are not bound up in miles of red tape. I’ve been on review panels, and I’ve submitted grant proposals. The system creaks and groans and rarely makes decent decisions. Funded programs usually are not scalable, not provable, and not likely to change our country.

The so-called free market does not work well in education. If it did, textbooks would already be obsolete. Online textbooks would not even be contemplated. I’ve been watching this nightmare slowly unfold for over a decade. Education is getting worse, not better, despite all of the money and talk and glitz and research.

I spoke yesterday to a middle school science teacher with 450 students. How is that better? It means that each student will have less than three hours of that teacher’s time per year.

The future of education has come. It’s on our doorstep crying and wailing at us, but few hear its voice. Yet, it is unavoidable. We can run but cannot hide from this future. Every day we run is a day we lose more of our youth and condemn too many of them to second-class lives.

The programs in education we must have cannot take ten years to implement. Ideally, they wouldn’t take ten days. Yet, we dither and suggest research programs, training programs, and evaluation programs. All of that was wonderful in the old days. We could afford to take our time. The naturally conservative nature of the education establishment protected us from ill-thought-out radical changes.

The time has come to embrace real change and take our chances. We have nowhere to go but up, nothing to lose but our chains. It’s happening in small places, but mostly it’s business as usual. I know because I live in this world, the world of education systems and bureaucracy. I see the problems every day. Fortunately for me, I also see an occasional bright ray of sunshine illuminating my landscape, and I have hope. Unfortunately, I’ve been watching these few, these ephemeral rays for a decade now, all the while hoping that bright sunshine would break out everywhere. But it hasn’t.

Inertia holds us back. Vested interests hold us back. Unwillingness to change holds us back. It’s everywhere, from the voter unwilling to spend a few dollars more a year to override an education funding limit law (and finding a couple of years later that the school has literally fallen down and now the few dollars becomes much larger) to the teacher who has 180 lesson plans and won’t change a comma of them. It’s the principal who plays it safe. It’s the mayor who caves to political pressures.

We can do it. We’re America. We can do anything — as long as the people have a voice. Speak out!

[Note: The following originated as a reply to Bonnie Bracey Sutton’s comment (12.3.11) on Withrow’s article. -Editor]

I’m not a person in technology doing well. I’m a scientist who had an idea and attempted to use technology to implement it. I hope that I do well, but after ten years and vast sums invested, we’re still treading water.

I never forget the people who are just learning. My team and I meet them all of the time, in person and on the telephone.

And, yes, often too much is made of half-baked educational technologies. IMHO, interactive whiteboards are one example and a very expensive one. It’s not using technology that should be scaled back. Instead, we should scale up our evaluation of which technologies to use and be more selective.

One day, it’s all about IWBs; on another it’s the great social networking tools; then, it’s all about personal digital devices; along come tablets. In every case, and there are many more, each has had its enthusiastic promoters. People say that if we could just put X in every classroom, that would solve all of our problems. But nothing is a panacea.

We must actively seek out solutions that solve important pieces of the problems. I’m seeking in the science education sphere. Thus, my comments are biased by that viewpoint. Every time I see a new solution presented, I ask how that will work in K-12 science classrooms.

The four points that Frank makes are valid — in general. However, they’ve been the focus of fixing education (or, at least, science education) for over 30 years. Billions of dollars have been spent on exactly that approach. Has it worked? You tell me. I can reach into my library and find lofty educational reform programs proposed during those decades that have produced nothing of note. The point here is that we have been doing those things and must continue to do them in order not to fall apart at the seams, but it’s not enough; it hasn’t been enough in the past and will not be in the future. It’s necessary but not sufficient and takes forever.

We must have scalable ideas with immediate positive impact that is greater than their cost. Finland did it without relying on technology. As a nation, we’re simply unable to do so today because of a general sense that we should not pay more taxes and that teachers aren’t worth much. I vehemently disagree with both sentiments, but it’s the attitude you hear. Therefore, we are left with old-fashioned American know-how and ingenuity as our best hope. Perhaps I’m wrong, and we no longer have people who will invent our way out of a crisis. Maybe Steve Jobs was the last of a breed. I don’t believe that. I do believe that we’ll have many fewer innovators if we don’t improve our education system — or they’ll all be imports.

Broadband is an issue only if developers are lazy. You can deliver great learning at 24K bps. It just take software and courseware designers more effort. That speed was the standard when I began, and it worked for me. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have broadband for all in this country.

Depth of content should be a given, and I’m sorry to see educational technology that lacks it. Again, it’s just a combination of laziness and emphasis on profit. I saw one large online school reject an improvement for their science classes that was approved by a substantial group inside the company just because they were doing “well enough” without the change, and the change would cost a small amount of money. Public institutions may not have profits, but they do have budgets and are subject to similar pressures.

The future is clear in many respects. Class sizes are growing. School budgets are shrinking. An online component will be part of every child’s education soon. Administrators are being forced to cut back on good programs. More research, more professional development, and more assessment programs won’t change these facts or fix them.

So, here we are at the Educational Technology & Change Journal discussing the topic that is our name. We must have change. Technology is our only way out because we’ve painted ourselves into a corner as a nation. But just as you can’t solve problems by throwing money at them, neither can you solve them by throwing technology at them. Only smart money and smart technology works.

Technology can do it, but only if it’s “better, faster, cheaper” — to steal a line from NASA. The reaction against technology comes from seeing technologies that are none or only one of the above.

* The tentative title for Harry’s book is Let’s Get America Thinking: A Personal Perspective on Science Education in the United States. The first draft is complete, and he’s currently sharing it with friends for feedback. To date, he hasn’t settled on an agent or publisher.

2 Responses

  1. Well, the title suggests that it’s all downhill. Actually, it’s more of a random walk. So many factors affect education.

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