Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006
How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century
CLAUDIA WALLIS, SONJA STEPTOE
dark little joke exchanged by educators with a dissident streak: Rip Van
Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of
course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about,
talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at
home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens.
Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and
with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports,
hospitals, shopping malls--every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when
he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is.
"This is a school," he declares. "We used to have these back in 1906. Only
now the blackboards are green."
schools aren't exactly frozen in time, but considering the pace of change
in other areas of life, our public schools tend to feel like throwbacks.
Kids spend much of the day as their great-grandparents once did: sitting
in rows, listening to teachers lecture, scribbling notes by hand,
reading from textbooks that are out of date by
the time they are printed. A yawning chasm (with an emphasis on yawning)
separates the world inside the schoolhouse from the world outside.
For the past
five years, the national conversation on education has focused on reading
scores, math tests and closing the "achievement gap" between social
classes. This is not a story about that conversation. This is a story
about the big public conversation the nation is not having about
education, the one that will ultimately determine not merely whether some
fraction of our children get "left behind" but also whether an entire
generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy
because they can't think their way through abstract problems, work in
teams, distinguish good information from bad or speak a language other
the conversation will burst onto the front page, when the New Commission
on the Skills of the American Workforce, a high-powered, bipartisan
assembly of Education Secretaries and business, government and other
education leaders releases a blueprint for rethinking American education
from pre-K to 12 and beyond to better prepare students to thrive in the
global economy. While that report includes some controversial proposals,
there is nonetheless a remarkable consensus among educators and business
and policy leaders on one key conclusion: we need to bring what we teach
and how we teach into the 21st century.
we're aiming too low. Competency in reading and math--the focus of so much
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing--is the meager minimum. Scientific and
technical skills are, likewise, utterly necessary but insufficient.
Today's economy demands not only a high-level competence in the
traditional academic disciplines but also what might be called 21st
century skills. Here's what they are:
about the world. Kids are global citizens now, even in small-town America,
and they must learn to act that way. Mike Eskew, CEO of UPS, talks about
needing workers who are "global trade literate, sensitive to foreign
cultures, conversant in different languages"--not exactly strong points in
the U.S., where fewer than half of high school students are enrolled in a
foreign-language class and where the social-studies curriculum tends to
fixate on U.S. history.
outside the box. Jobs in the new economy--the ones that won't get
outsourced or automated--"put an enormous premium on creative and
innovative skills, seeing patterns where other people see only chaos,"
says Marc Tucker, an author of the skills-commission report and president
of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Traditionally that's
been an American strength, but schools have become less daring in the
back-to-basics climate of NCLB. Kids also must learn to think across
disciplines, since that's where most new breakthroughs are made.
It's interdisciplinary combinations--design and
technology, mathematics and art--"that produce YouTube and Google," says
Thomas Friedman, the best-selling author of The World Is Flat.
smarter about new sources of information. In an age of overflowing
information and proliferating media, kids need to rapidly process what's
coming at them and distinguish between what's reliable and what isn't.
"It's important that students know how to manage it, interpret it,
validate it, and how to act on it," says Dell executive Karen Bruett, who
serves on the board of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a group of
corporate and education leaders focused on upgrading American education.
good people skills. EQ, or emotional intelligence, is as important as IQ
for success in today's workplace. "Most innovations today involve large
teams of people," says former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. "We
have to emphasize communication skills, the ability to work in teams and
with people from different cultures."
public schools, originally designed to educate workers for agrarian life
and industrial-age factories, make the necessary shifts? The Skills
commission will argue that it's possible only if we add new depth and
rigor to our curriculum and standardized exams,
redeploy the dollars we spend on education, reshape the teaching force and
reorganize who runs the schools. But without waiting for such a
revolution, enterprising administrators around the country have begun to
update their schools, often with ideas and support from local businesses.
The state of Michigan, conceding that it can no longer count on the ailing
auto industry to absorb its poorly educated and low-skilled workers, is
retooling its high schools, instituting what are among the most rigorous
graduation requirements in the nation. Elsewhere, organizations like the
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation for the
Advancement of Teaching and the Asia Society are pouring money and
expertise into model programs to show the way.
Means to Be a Global Student
many ways can you combine nickels, dimes and pennies to get 20¢? That's
the challenge for students in a second-grade math class at Seattle's John
Stanford International School, and hands are flying up with answers. The
students sit at tables of four manipulating play money. One boy shouts "10
plus 10"; a girl offers "10 plus 5 plus 5," only it sounds like this: "Ju,
tasu, go, tasu, go." Down the hall, third-graders are learning to
interpret charts and graphs showing how many hours of sleep people need at
different ages. "¿Cuantas horas duerme un bebé?" asks the teacher Sabrina
elementary school has taken the idea of global education and run with it.
All students take some classes in either Japanese or Spanish. Other
subjects are taught in English, but the content has an international
flavor. The school pulls its 393 students from the surrounding highly
diverse neighborhood and by lottery from other parts of the city.
Generally, its scores on state tests are at or above average, although
those exams barely scratch the surface of what Stanford students learn.
opening the school seven years ago, principal Karen Kodama surveyed 1,500
business leaders on which languages to teach (plans for Mandarin were
dropped for lack of classroom space) and which skills and disciplines.
"No. 1 was technology," she recalls. Even first-graders at Stanford begin
to use PowerPoint and Internet tools. "Exposure to world cultures was also
an important trait cited by the executives," says Kodama, so that instead
of circling back to the Pilgrims and Indians every autumn, children at
Stanford do social-studies units on Asia, Africa, Australia, Mexico and
South America. Students actively apply the lessons in foreign language and
culture by video-conferencing with sister schools in Japan, Africa and
Mexico, by exchanging messages, gifts and joining in charity projects.
International shows what's possible for a public elementary school,
although it has the rare advantage of support from corporations like
Nintendo and Starbucks, which contribute to its $1.7 million-a-year
budget. Still, dozens of U.S. school districts have found ways to orient
some of their students toward the global economy. Many have opened schools
that offer the international baccalaureate (I.B.) program, a rigorous,
off-the-shelf curriculum recognized by universities around the world and
first introduced in 1968--well before globalization became a buzzword.
To earn an
I.B. diploma, students must prove written and spoken proficiency in a
second language, write a 4,000-word college-level research paper, complete
a real-world service project and pass rigorous oral and written subject
exams. Courses offer an international perspective, so even a lesson on the
American Revolution will interweave sources from Britain and France with
views from the Founding Fathers. "We try to build something we call
international mindedness," says Jeffrey Beard, director general of the
International Baccalaureate Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. "These
are students who can grasp issues across national borders. They have an
understanding of nuances and complexity and a balanced approach to problem
solving." Despite stringent certification requirements, I.B. schools are
growing in the U.S.--from about 350 in 2000 to 682 today. The U.S.
Department of Education has a pilot effort to bring the program to more
Knowledge in the Google Era
names of all the rivers in South America. That was the assignment given to
Deborah Stipek's daughter Meredith in school, and her mom,
who's dean of the Stanford University School of
Education, was not impressed. "That's silly," Stipek told her daughter.
"Tell your teacher that if you need to know anything besides the Amazon,
you can look it up on Google." Any number of
old-school assignments--memorizing the battles of the Civil War or the
periodic table of the elements--now seem faintly absurd. That kind
of information, which is poorly retained unless you routinely use it, is
available at a keystroke. Still, few would argue that an American child
shouldn't learn the causes of the Civil War or understand how the periodic
table reflects the atomic structure and properties of the elements. As
school critic E.D. Hirsch Jr. points out in his book, The Knowledge
Deficit, kids need a substantial fund of information just to make sense of
reading materials beyond the grade-school level. Without mastering the
fundamental building blocks of math, science or history, complex concepts
analysts believe that to achieve the right balance between such core
knowledge and what educators call "portable skills"--critical thinking,
making connections between ideas and knowing how to keep on learning--the
U.S. curriculum needs to become more like that of Singapore, Belgium and
Sweden, whose students outperform American students on math and science
tests. Classes in these countries dwell on key concepts that are taught in
depth and in careful sequence, as opposed to a succession of forgettable
details so often served in U.S. classrooms. Textbooks and tests support
this approach. "Countries from Germany to Singapore have extremely small
textbooks that focus on the most powerful and generative ideas," says Roy
Pea, co-director of the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning. These
might be the key theorems in math, the laws of thermodynamics in science
or the relationship between supply and demand in economics. America's
bloated textbooks, by contrast, tend to gallop through a mind-numbing
stream of topics and subtopics in an attempt to address a vast range of
breadth and the ability to leap across disciplines are exactly what
teachers aim for at the Henry Ford Academy, a public charter school in
Dearborn, Mich. This fall, 10th-graders in Charles Dershimer's science
class began a project that combines concepts from earth science,
chemistry, business and design. After reading about Nike's efforts to
develop a more environmentally friendly sneaker, students had to choose a
consumer product, analyze and explain its environmental impact and then
develop a plan for re-engineering it to reduce pollution costs without
sacrificing its commercial appeal. Says Dershimer: "It's a challenge for
them and for me."
A New Kind
in Bill Stroud's class are riveted by a documentary called Loose Change
unspooling on a small TV screen at the Baccalaureate School for Global
Education, in urban Astoria, N.Y. The film uses 9/11 footage and
interviews with building engineers and Twin Towers survivors to make an
oddly compelling if paranoid case that interior explosions unrelated to
the impact of the airplanes brought down the World Trade Center on that
fateful day. Afterward, the students--an ethnic mix of New Yorkers with
their own 9/11 memories--dive into a discussion about the elusive nature
finds the video more convincing than the official version of the facts.
Marisa Reichel objects. "Because of a movie, you are going to change your
beliefs?" she demands. "Just because people heard explosions doesn't mean
there were explosions. You can say you feel the room spinning, but it
isn't." This kind of discussion about what we know and how we know it is
typical of a theory of knowledge class, a required element for an
international-baccalaureate diploma. Stroud has posed this question to his
class on the blackboard: "If truth is difficult to prove in history, does
it follow that all versions are equally acceptable?"
the year, the class will examine news reports, websites, propaganda,
history books, blogs, even pop songs. The goal
is to teach kids to be discerning consumers of information and to
research, formulate and defend their own views, says Stroud, who is
founder and principal of the four-year-old public school, which is located
in a repurposed handbag factory.
this, which teach key aspects of information literacy, remain rare in
public education, but more and more universities and employers say they
are needed as the world grows ever more deluged with information of
variable quality. Last year, in response to demand from colleges, the
Educational Testing Service unveiled a new, computer-based exam designed
to measure information-and-communication-technology literacy. A pilot
study of the test with 6,200 high school seniors and college freshmen
found that only half could correctly judge the objectivity of a website.
"Kids tend to go to Google and cut and paste a research report together,"
says Terry Egan, who led the team that developed the new test. "We kind of
assumed this generation was so comfortable with technology that they know
how to use it for research and deeper thinking," says Egan. "But if
they're not taught these skills, they don't necessarily pick them up."
of Sun Microsystems was up against one of the most vexing challenges of
modern life: a third-grade science project. Scott McNealy had spent hours
searching the Web for a lively explanation of electricity that his son
could understand. "Finally I found a very nice, animated, educational
website showing electrons zooming around and tests after each section. We
did this for about an hour and a half and had a ball--a great father-son
moment of learning. All of a sudden we ran out of runway because it was a
site to help welders, and it then got into welding." For McNealy the
experience, three years ago, provided one of life's
aha! moments: "It made me wonder why there isn't a website where I can
just go and have anything I want to learn, K to 12, online, browser based
solution: draw on the Wikipedia model to create a collection of online
courses that can be updated, improved, vetted and built upon by innovative
teachers, who, he notes, "are always developing new materials and methods
of instruction because they aren't happy with what they have." And who
better to create such a site than McNealy, whose company has led the way
in designing open-source computer software? He quickly raised some money,
created a nonprofit
and--voilà!--Curriki.org made its debut January 2006, and has been
growing fast. Some 450 courses are in the works, and about 3,000 people
have joined as members. McNealy reports that a teenager in Kuwait has
already completed the introductory physics and calculus classes in 18
however, isn't meant to replace going to school but to supplement it and
offer courses that may not be available locally. It aims to give teachers
classroom-tested content materials and assessments that are livelier and
more current and multimedia-based than printed textbooks. Ultimately, it
could take the Web 2.0 revolution to school, closing that yawning gap
between how kids learn at school and how they do everything else.
Educators around the country and overseas are already discussing ways to
certify Curriki's online course work for credit.
are creating their own online courses. "In the 21st century, the ability
to be a lifelong learner will, for many people, be dependent on their
ability to access and benefit from online learning," says Michael
Flanagan, Michigan's superintendent of public instruction, which is why
Michigan's new high school graduation requirements, which roll out next
year, include completing at least one course online.
A Dose of
need not fear that they will be made obsolete. They will, however, feel
increasing pressure to bring their methods--along with the
curriculum--into line with the way the modern world works. That means
putting a greater emphasis on teaching kids to collaborate and solve
problems in small groups and apply what they've learned in the real world.
Besides, research shows that kids learn better that way than with the old
Farmington High in Michigan, the engineering-technology department
functions like an engineering firm, with teachers as project managers, a
Ford Motor Co. engineer as a consultant and students working in teams. The
principles of calculus, physics, chemistry and engineering are taught
through activities that fill the hallways with a cacophony of nailing,
sawing and chattering. The result: the kids learn to apply academic
principles to the real world, think strategically and solve problems.
also teach students to show respect for others as well as to be punctual,
responsible and work well in teams. Those skills were badly missing in
recently hired high school graduates, according to a survey of over 400
human-resource professionals conducted by the Partnership for 21st Century
Skills. "Kids don't know how to shake your hand at graduation," says
Rudolph Crew, superintendent of the Miami-Dade school system. Deportment,
he notes, used to be on the report card. Some of the nation's more
forward-thinking schools are bringing it back. It's
one part of 21st century education that sleepy old Rip would recognize.
With reporting by Carolina A. Miranda