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The untried approach

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue May, May 1 - May 31 2000 | BY Arthur Melmed 


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What can be done to improve public education?

Since Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. has unsuccessfully endeavored, by almost every measure, to improve public education. Despite an average annual student expenditure greater than that for almost every other country, U.S. secondary school students consistently score towards the bottom of the rankings in international comparisons. Why? Can anything be done about it? What can ACM members do?

Some, a majority, argue the nation has a problem that should and can be fixed; others that we face a condition we should learn to live with. After all, the U.S. gives ample evidence of greatness, doesn't it. My take is that it's some of each, and, in order to engage the issues successfully, we had better understand the boundary separating them.

The problem-solving approach the nation has exclusively employed over the past 40 years, which aimed in turn to improve the curriculum, increase teacher salary, emphasize school leadership, and reduce class size, has failed. In reaction, incentive systems -- accountability, charter schools and publicly financed private schools -- are now in the "political" saddle. But absent some new element in the equation, there seems no reason to think that a market approach, which improves curriculum, increases teacher salaries, emphasizes school leadership, and reduces class size, (in addition to possibly turning a profit), should succeed, when more than 40 years of trials using this approach in some 85,000 schools has failed. The "invisible hand" is not a miracle worker.

In order to progress, I believe the nation will have to acknowledge that students are not as easy to teach as they used to be, for a variety of reasons; and that teachers are not as intellectually capable as they used to be. The economy has long since outbid the tax base for the kind of individual most of us would wish to see teaching our children. These are conditions to be faced. (I add there is no reason to think teachers presently are any less compassionate than they used to be.)

The nation will also have to acknowledge that the 2000-student high school, successor to the much romanticized "little red schoolhouse," no longer cuts it, because of changed conditions. Something new is needed.

Advances in cognitive psychology and neurosciences research may in the long term -- I believe only in the very long term -- prove more successful than raw behaviorism in identifying and accurately describing the mental processes of learning. (Eventually, perhaps there may even be a pill.) But until then, unless we are willing to wait, we should fall back on the sure things we know from experience about student learning.

Learning demands time and concentration, and mental (sometimes physical) trials in order to aggregate and integrate new facts and concepts. The process can be facilitated for the student by timely advice and counseling by someone, another student or professional tutor or teacher, who has already succeeded with this particular learning goal. After 40 years of failed effort, it is reasonable to consider that classroom practice as we know it is no longer able to satisfy these requirements, and that a radical as opposed to marginal change in educational practice is required.

As schools are presently organized and operated, at a price the taxpayer is prepared to pay, the average student lacks adequate time to concentrate, adequate time and opportunity for repeated learning trials, and adequate opportunity for advice and counseling, especially in the so-called "hard" subjects like mathematics, science education, economics, and so on. This is not the time, place or space to rough out a school system capable of doing the kind of job for our young the nation has a right to expect.

But what stands out in the noise of education reform babble is that modern software, used by students in and outside of school, can in principle meet two of the three requirements identified here at a price the taxpayer would be willing to pay (once certain initial capital costs were met), that with a little ingenuity, arrangements combining software with a measure of human tutoring could be designed to meet all three; and that the nation has not yet shown the wit and courage to examine this approach. What stands out too is that a Martian could only conclude -- based on competing investments -- that society values word processing software far more highly than educational software.

Arthur Melmed is a Research Professor at The Institute of Public Policy, George Mason University. In 18 years of federal service at the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. National Institute of Education, he was primarily concerned with R&D policy for technology in education.


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