"Ask an impertinent question, and you're on your way to a pertinent answer." —Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
As of October 2015, my goal for this blog is to ask 101 impertinent questions.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Show Me How You Are Searching

Some months back on the PBS NewsHour, I watched students of all ages in a North Carolina school where everyone has a computer. Books in that district will soon be obsolete. The students were all sitting at their desks, eyes glued to their own little screens. Several days later, I heard on the radio that a new study shows that children, especially the young and disadvantaged, learn best by discussing and playing.

Now I see that the iPad will be arriving in the Tillamook School District where I live. I’m old. I started my career as an English teacher in 1965. I love books. But times are changing. Besides, textbooks are expensive, heavy, and environmentally unsound. Even worse, most textbooks, having been dumb-down and edited so as not to trouble anyone with a controversial thought, exude all the personality of Pablum.

When I started teaching in the sixties, I swore I would never become like those cranky old teachers, wringing their hands about the new generation and all their irreverent ideas. Technology is not the problem. I’m a writer and deeply attached to my computer. And yes, the iPads will offer unimaginable opportunities for students. The sky is no longer the limit.

On the other hand, surfing is not learning. Acquisition of massive amounts of information is not wisdom or insight. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The iPads should definitely stimulate imagination. But Einstein also said that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” The universe runs according to laws, even the quantum world where electrons behave differently, depending on how you look at them. How cool is that.

But while it’s been said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” we might also say the same about limitless information. Access to all the information in the universe is nothing more than a whole lot of information if you don’t know how to use it. The scientific method is the same now as it was in the time of Aristotle—the ongoing use of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and verification. These terms are, of course, just fancy language for figuring out how to do or fix stuff whether you’re a farmer, politician, or NASA scientist. Having instant access to all the information in the universe is fun and may harness the attention of students. But despite the 24-7 access to limitless information that is already available to many of our young people, the fact remains that American students rank 29th in science, with one out of four students falling at the very bottom of the rankings. What else do young people need to know in order to solve all the problems we’re dumping in their laps?

Today’s hospitals are all hooked up so that their staffs have great swaths of information at their fingertips. Yet, a recent study of three sophisticated hospitals showed that one third of all patients suffered some adverse complication during their hospitalization. Also, every week in America, forty wrong-side surgeries are performed, as in amputating the left leg when it was the right leg scheduled for surgery.

All our Washington politicians have one or more degrees from our finest institutions of higher learning and large staffs to gather massive amounts of information. Yet many of these politicians appear to lack the character and basic skills required to solve our nation’s growing problems. In fact, much of what the politicians have done has made these problems worse. What didn't they learn in school?

While budget cuts have become routine for Tillamook schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan just spent $4.35 billion of our taxpayer money on his education reform program called Race to the Top. The idea of the program was that states were to compete for the money by coming up with innovative programs. Except the money went to the eleven states and the District of Columbia who are developing data systems, massive collections of data on individual students from test scores to their interaction with child services. The winning proposals uttered hardly a word about more effective curriculum development.

“Show me how you are searching,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “and I will show you what you are searching for.”

Technology is a marvel of the human mind. Ray Kurzweil predicts in The Transcendent Man that by 2045, computers and man will have merged. Isaac Asimov predicted the same thing in his fabulous short story "The Last Question," which I first read in 1975. In 2045, I'll be 103. Or not. It's a strange feeling to see the world changing before my eyes, almost by the day. What concerns me is not the future, but what I have experienced in the past that has brought us to this point where we are now shrinking our children's experience within this vast universe to fit inside a tiny screen.

Shouldn’t we at least be asking ourselves if staring into little screens might actually be narrowing our vision as a people. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act so we could prepare children to beat the Soviets in the space race and the arms race. Since then, the arts have been systematically eliminated from curriculum and the humanities so denigrated that today in many schools, 30,000 years of what it means to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective. 

Bridgeport Parents Say No to Icebergs

Bridgeport, Connecticut parents complaining about their school superintendent Paul Valles have it right. U. S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan does not.

Mr. Valles, formerly CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and Superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, was hired about two years to revamp Bridgeport schools. But apparently annual salary of $234,000 isn't sufficient, as Mr. Valles has also negotiated an $18 million contract to bring his famed "Valles Turnaround Model" to Illinois schools. Bridgeport parents don't think much of the model which is based on a standardized curriculum, aggressive testing, and the move to reorganize schools under the leadership of charter management companies. And there's evidence to show they're right.

Remember when Secretary Duncan said that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing ever to happen to education in New Orleans"? This, he said, allowed the old system to be washed away to make room for the "perfect" system. Enter Paul Valles as superintendent. Mr. Valles does what so many school reformers, including Bill Gates, like to do. They go into a district, spend a lot of money, get no results, then just leave and call it a success.

So what happened in the New Orleans Recovery (so-called) School District. Well, reports show that 79% of Mr. Valles charter schools received either a D or an F on Louisiana's school report card. And the average score on the ACT is 16.8, among the lowest in the country. This average score rose by less than half a percentage point under the Valles Turnaround Model. All this, of course, happened at a cost of millions.

Yet, when Connecticut parents see their schools headed down this dead-end street, Secretary Duncan calls their complaints "beyond ludicrous"and an example of too many schools who are clinging to "archaic ideas." Both Secretary Duncan and Mr. Valles served as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. In 2012, only 21 percent of eighth graders tested at grade level or above with only 20 percent at gradge level or above in math. 

In his criticism of Connecticut parents, Secretary Duncan said they were "just another painfully obvious, crystal-clear example of people caught in an old paradigm. This is the tip of the iceberg."
Reformers like Mr. Valles and Secretary Duncan are the iceberg and the voices of denial driving the American public education system full steam ahead into disaster.