What Should Pres. Obama Do About Educational Reform?

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Updated 8.2.10 – links added: “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act”; “In the News: More Opposition to Duncan’s Reform Policies: Defending Obama’s Education Agenda”; “Our Communities Left Behind: An Analysis of the Administration’s School Turnaround Policies.” -bbs/js]

The problem that President Obama is having should be addressed. I think he is between a rock and a hard place in his efforts to change the face of education. What do you, our ETCJ readers, writers, and editors, think he should do?

To post your comment, click on the title of this article and scroll down to the comment box. To start the discussion, here are a few documents that you might want to read:

Valerie Strauss, “Obama, Education, Snooki, Civil Rights and Bryan Bass” (The Answer Sheet, Washington Post, 30 July 2010): The president’s “terribly misguided $4.35 billion competitive grant program is, apparently, more important than health care reform, the economic recovery program, improving the student loan program, increasing Pell Grant payouts, and, well, anything else he has accomplished since becoming president.” Continue reading

India Steps Forward in Science Education

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent press release in The Hindu newspaper, titled “Virtual lab for exploring science in top 10 institutes,” explained a new initiative by the government of India.

The release states, “Students pursuing higher studies at the country’s top technical institutes will now be able to do any experiment without going to a laboratory but through virtual labs.” It goes on to note that the government will be spending $40 million (Rs 2 billion) to complete this project within a year.

Coming on the heels of new virtual science lab commercial products from Romania, Turkey, and Scotland, this announcement should have our attention for two reasons.

It shows that India has made a huge commitment to gaining ground in science and engineering. They have decided to increase their ability to graduate qualified students in these fields from their premier education organization, the India Institutes of Technology.

The announcement also highlights our own problems. Rather than engaging in our own initiatives, we are spending our education tax dollars to import simulation software from foreign countries. We’re sending our stimulus dollars to the Middle East! As I have noted previously, the end of this process could be outsourcing not just of software services, but of entire courses including the teachers to foreign countries.

keller_21apr2009aFor a relatively paltry fraction of the money that India is spending, we could be promoting great science education technology initiatives right here at home. A few million dollars to make us more competitive in science education seems like nothing compared with trillions in spending and even with $40 million being spent on a single project by India.

I contacted our Department of Education about this topic and received a polite letter informing me that the Department does not do this sort of thing. I should contact the states, all 50 of them, one at a time! I have contacted many of the states too. They say that I should contact the individual districts, most of which say to contact the schools. Talk about buck passing!

I have a vested interest in all of this. My modest company produces a solution for online science labs that uses prerecorded real experiments. I do my best to avoid bias and like to think that my involvement just allows me to focus better on what’s going on. I see little support for innovation and entrepreneurship in education. As a scientist, I have great concern about this entire issue, which is why I entered the virtual lab business in the first place.

This journal is the perfect place to discuss these matters. It’s all about technology and change, after all.  While these two can be discussed separately, I prefer to discuss the use of technology to effect change in education. In fact, I see technology as our only hope for bringing about real and useful change, at least in science education.

The well-known challenges in science education today include:

  • increasing class sizes, sometimes over forty students
  • decreasing budgets made even worse by the recession
  • loss of lab time to high-stakes testing
  • complete removal of some labs due to new safety regulations
  • increasing costs for hazardous waste disposal
  • greater insurance costs for science labs where overcrowding causes more accidents
  • reluctance of overworked and underpaid teachers to change their methods
  • high teacher turnover due to the stresses of some current school environments
  • lack of new teachers trained in science, especially physical sciences

Great efforts have been made over the last quarter century to improve science education. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) were published to great fanfare, and have not fixed the problems. New professional development efforts also leave the science classrooms unimproved. Billions of dollars have been spent.

The Obama administration has proposed new curriculum standards, new science labs, and more professional development. These solutions require an abundance of two things we have little of: time and money. The sort of technology that involves physical materials, for example, smart boards, also requires lots of money and professional development to utilize them well.

Internet technology, on the other hand, requires only Internet access, which now is available nearly everywhere, and Internet-literate teachers. This evolving technology, if applied well, can overcome all of the above list of challenges except for the reluctance of many teachers to change methods to employ the new ideas. Given the potential benefits, we should certainly be investigating this approach in as many way as possible.

Why should our government talk about bold steps and yet be so timid compared with India?

The President’s Town Hall Meeting Could Have Been Entitled ‘No Teacher Left Behind’

bbracey80By Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

[Note: The following article was originally posted by Bonnie Bracey Sutton in a WWWEDU (The Web and Education Discussion Group) discussion thread on “The State of Education in the Nation. Uneven But the President is on task,” on 26 March 2009. It has been revised for ETC. -js]

One of the advantages or disadvantages that I have is that I live in Washington, DC. That means I get to go to the hill and hear what President Obama actually says as well as reports from the different groups and sources on the latest in education.

I just attended an online Town Hall Meeting at White House.gov. You may want to review this presentation and or listen to the President, in his own words, share his perspective on education in the nation. I have heard the pleas from Compete.org, The Convocation on the Gathering Storm, the Innovation Proclamation, and the MIT PiTAC groups. It was like going to the hill with the cheerleaders for change in education. But today, the President talked directly about teachers, early childhood education, charter schools and evaluation, and innovation.

What was so interesting to me was that he talked about the support that is needed for teachers. Unlike Michelle Rhee, he did not play the blame game. He acknowledged that he had the best of education but that education is delivered unevenly in the US. He said that teachers need professional development, first, and then we can talk about measurement and merit pay. He must have been reading the local DC papers. How refreshing to see that he gets it..

Here in Washington there is a school where students are throwing books at teachers when they turn their backs. It’s not about technology. It’s about classroom management and attitudes. The President said that not only do teachers need to know curriculum, but they also need to know how to manage the classroom.


I attended a STEM initiative yesterday that was presented by the National Center for Technological Literacy, NSTA, and NCTM. It was a briefing of the House STEM Education Caucus. I also attended two STEM workshops yesterday. One was excellent. The various groups talked about science, math, technology, and engineering, and gave references, links to websites, and resources. The participants at the STEM advocacy meeting were encouraged to network. There were plentiful materials for all, and even a handout of all of the powerpoints. This was organized by Sharon Robinson and the STEM Alliance, The House STEM Education Caucus, and Innovative STEM Teacher Preparation Programs. It was worth getting up to go to.

At the Education of Science Teachers in Pre-Service for college teachers, in a powerpoint on Science Teacher Education, the focus was on content knowledge and content courses in programs. There was mention of the pressures from NCLB and other mandates. They actually said that in many states science in elementary schools had become a nonentity because it has not been tested and relegated to 20 minutes a week, if taught at all. There was discussion of the disconnect between “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants,” but the group acknowledged that there were some who were digitally disconnected and barack-obamatherefore not in either category. Discussion revolved around a holistic approach to educating pre-service teachers. This was the point made by Jon Pederson from the Association for Science Teacher Education.

Often people teach teachers how to use technology without explaining how that technology changes the classroom and the ways in which we must work.

In Mathematics Teacher Preparation, Dr. Francis Fennell discussed teacher education programs, emphasizing mathematical and pedagogical content knowledge needed for teaching math. Based on evidence from the 2009 National Mathematics Advisory Panel, he said that a substantial part of the variability in student achievement gains is due to the teacher’s ability and knowledge of math.

He discussed the critical shortage in most states of high school and middle school teachers. He talked about the various pathways into teaching and said that we must improve teacher mentoring, professional development, and retention. He was clear that the National Math Panel supported the idea of elementary math specialists. He predicted that there might be mathematics specialists at every level.

The only disconcerting thing for me was that he did not seem to know what computational math is and why it should be included in his road map to math excellence. See http://www.shodor.org

There was handout from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It stated that every student has the right to be taught mathematics by a highly qualified teacher — a teacher who knows mathematics well and who can guide students toward understanding and learning. A highly qualified teacher understands how students learn mathematics, employs a wide range of teaching strategies, and is committed to lifelong professional development.

An interesting variation and new discussion centered on the Atlas Program, Advancing the Technological Literacy and Skills of Elementary Educators, sponsored by the Museum of Science, Boston (http://www.mos.org/eie/atlas). They shared a rationale for engineering technology in elementary grades and discussed the needs, goals and outcomes, and a plan for distribution of this program to community colleges and four years institutions. This program and its highlights are available on the web.

Then I went to the NEA building to the 21st Century STEM initiatives presentation. Chris Dede began the talk in maybe ’92, and we discussed the 21st Century Initiatives. I actually worked for the first initiative, doing outreach to teachers after I finished my work on the NIIAC, and shared resources, ideas, and philosophy on the use of technology in the US. There were many players who had ideas at that time who were collaborating with the 21st Century Initiative. Sadly, I learned yesterday that the group is stll wedded to Margaret Spellings and the original NCLB talk.

There was no mention at all of science, geography, and the innovative part of STEM that we have come to know about from Compete.org. The innovation seemed to come from INTEL, and there was little mention of UDL, but Ken Kay never mentioned science, engineering, and/or technology as a complete subject. Maybe they need to retool and re-educate themselves on the new direction in which the President is going. Instead they wanted states to sign up for more standards. Maybe Ken Kay has not heard the Secretary of Education’s speech at the NSTA conference.

Arnie Duncan and the President mentioned SCIENCE and Technology. The difference between what the President actually says and what others SAY he says is huge. It is significant that the President and the Secretary of Education pay particular attention to the STEM work. Governors are also on board. There are special STEM academies and Project Lead the Way. Robotics First and other initiatives are being shared, as well as the results of ITEST NSF grants as ways of working. The vocational science issues that are addressing workforce readiness and the Perkins initiative were also important additions to the discussion by the President and Duncan.

The 21st Century Initiative seems to be more a membership initiative that is looking for state buy in. If they are not really going to include real science, real math, computational math, and science and engineering, they should not call their work STEM initiatives.

Geography (http://mywonderfulworld.org)? No one mentioned it.

Ineffective Use of Computers in Schools

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

On Tuesday, December 9, 2008, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, “Obama wants to put more computers in classrooms, an old idea with dubious educational merit”[1].

It’s true that people have been putting computers in classrooms for many years. It’s also true that the impact of these computers has often been less than wished. However, neither of those facts tell us that we should stop. Rather, they tell us to review how and why computers are being used in those classrooms.

In my own visits to schools across the country, I have seen those computers being both underutilized and over-utilized. In some schools, the computers sit idle while traditional instruction continues. Occasionally, students are allowed to use the computers, and they get to use the standard business tools available such as spreadsheets and word processors. Sure, it’s nice that the students are learning to use those tools, but are they helping students learn their subject? I think not.

In other schools, I’ve seen computer rooms fully booked so that some teachers are unable to use them at all for their students. Upon inquiry, I discovered that math and English classes have priority because of high-stakes testing. The computers have various programs on them that drill the students on concepts required on those tests. In my opinion, these schools are wasting a valuable resource.

Computers slowly and quite certainly have revolutionized many businesses. Lawyers, among the last to succumb, now cannot live without their word processors with the ability to rewrite accurately, insert boilerplate, and check spelling and grammar. Software has been created to support the advances in productivity that we’ve seen in many industries. So, what’s the matter with education?

keller04The larger class sizes we see in schools are not the result of improved worker productivity; they’re caused by budget shortfalls. Clearly, computers have not improved teacher productivity. Students aren’t learning better. Just look at any number of international measures of student success in mathematics and science. We (the United States) are losing.

At least in traditional classrooms, neither the quantity nor quality of product has improved in this age of technology. Charter schools are making some headway mostly because their employees work multiple job descriptions and long hours. Generally, online education works because students self-select based on study skills, and teachers have tools to allow them to have slightly larger numbers of students. Those tools come with “learning management systems” (LMS) that online schools use to handle administration of classes.

To be fair, the United States has over 50 different sets of standards for education and administers those standards from a very large number of individual school districts. That fact makes creating software usable across the entire country quite difficult. Turkey has committed its education system to online learning and doesn’t have the same problems. The software I’ve seen from Turkey is first-rate and shames our own home-grown efforts.

If we don’t get moving on real innovation in education right now, we may find our children learning from online schools headquartered in Turkey, Israel, and Singapore quite soon. Teachers, like factory workers, will see their jobs disappear overseas.

Instead of waiting, as the automobile industry did, until it’s too late, begin today by merging the various state standards, requiring teachers to use good computer-based learning tools, and having our federal government support innovation that uses technology to make a real difference and that’s not just drill repackaged or textbooks converted to online format with animations and sound or other similar old methods with new facades.

Green Computing: How to Reduce Our Personal Carbon Footprints

thompson80By John Thompson
Staff Writer
22 November 2008

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” That quote sounds quite timely as President-elect Obama made “green energy” part of his vision for America’s future, including using clean energy as an engine to create millions of new “green collar” jobs. So over the course of the 2008 presidential campaign, the general public has heard about his vision for clean energy and should be primed for that issue to be addressed in his new administration. But apart from what government and business can and should do to address the energy situation, what can and should individuals do to support this initiative? Specifically, what can individual computer users do to reduce their personal carbon footprints?

However, it seems somewhat self-defeating to embark on new, costly initiatives to reduce energy costs without also first examining ways in which we can make cost saving adjustments on the personal level. With over 300 million people in the USA, if each person, or even each office or household, made a conscious effort to examine his or her own use of energy, it would seem that the multiplier effect of millions of small daily changes would yield significant results on a national scale. What are some changes that individuals can make to support green computing and reduce their technology carbon footprints? Let’s look at some ways to start making a difference by picking just a few low-hanging fruits.

thompson01Power management. Keep computers and printers turned off unless you’re using them. Or at least set computer and monitor power management controls to enter low power “sleep” mode when your system is not actively in use. And while a PC does use some power in sleep mode, it’s very small—maybe 10% of what’s needed when it’s running at full power. Also, cut down on the time a computer operates unattended before it goes into sleep mode. The US Department of Energy estimates that a PC wastes up to 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year just by functioning at full power even though it’s not being used. Dell reportedly has saved almost $2 million and avoided 11,000 tons of CO2 emissions in one year through a global power-management initiative that calls for its employees to say “nighty-night” daily to their PCs by changing the power management setup so their PCS enter sleep mode each night.

E-mail. Look at our use of e-mail, which continues to explode. Personally, a quick count shows that I have sent close to 400 personal and business-related e-mails this month, and there’s still a week left in the month. And that number is a small fraction of the hundreds that I receive each day and of the estimated several hundred billion sent daily worldwide. Use e-mail to minimize paper use, but don’t routinely print them. Add a message at the bottom of your e-mails requesting that recipients save paper by thinking twice before printing them off their screens. I’ve seen administrators who have their administrative assistants print out all e-mails so they can read and maybe reply to them. Suggest outsourcing your organization’s e-mail to Gmail as Google probably runs its data centers much more economically and greener than you do. And switching can generate cost savings and maybe increased e-mail features for users.

Online learning. By clicking to enter your course instead of driving to campus you do away with commuting and parking hassles while also eliminating your car exhaust emissions. A 2005 report on the environmental impact of providing higher education courses found, “on average, the production and provision of the distance learning courses consumed nearly 90% less energy and thompson02produced 85% fewer CO2 emissions” (p. 4). Online courses also typically reduce paper use since traditional classroom courses still use large amounts of paper (e.g., handouts). Unless your instructor assigns a textbook (many of the online courses I teach have not used a print text in years), everything is digital through e-mail or using the Internet. So if you have a choice between taking a college course in a traditional campus setting or accessing your course from work or home, consider the online choice. No campus presence equates to less energy use, but be sure to use the power management settings on your computer system and resist the temptation to print out all your online reading assignments.

All these suggestions sound doable to most folks. In addition, there are many other simple ways to reduce your personal energy use. But we aren’t talking about going totally “green” and parking your car and walking everywhere. We’re simply looking at ways you—the person reading this blog online right now—can start making a small but significant difference.

Then why are most of these simple strategies not being implemented? Why are computer users not seeking to achieve the TBL—triple bottom line (economic, environmental and social)—and save money, help protect the environment, and do what’s right for society? Is it strictly an “I didn’t know” reason, or are there other obvious and not so obvious reasons that individuals are not taking personal responsibility to reduce their own carbon footprints? Is this a nation (world?) of people with little awareness of these small yet effective changes or just plain lazy folks waiting for government and business to light the light and lead us to reduced energy consumption? What do you think?

Oh, that opening quotation? That’s from Thomas Edison—in 1931. One would hope that there is more progress on sustainable energy in the near future than in the past 77 years.  Don’t leave it up to government or your boss. Little things YOU can do can make a big difference. Making small, almost seemingly insignificant changes can yield huge cumulative results. Green computing is just a change of habit.