Opinion > Commentary

Why the politics we’ve got won’t produce the schools we need



(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Why, one might ask, should California, the headwaters of the digital revolution, be stuck in the eddies of an early 20th Century school design?

The answer lies partly in culture and partly in politics. Almost all the politics of education concerns rearranging adult power and privilege. Relatively little political energy is spent consciously designing a contemporary system of public education that addresses the needs of today’s students. That should change.

Schooling faces a major redesign problem. Learning 1.0 is a century old. Now we have the opportunity to redesign education, creating Learning 2.0, a more flexible, personalized, and experiential form of learning. The capacity to do this comes partly from the Internet’s network technology but mainly from changing how people think about learning. More than their schools, it is people’s heads that will need rewiring.

To get to Learning 2.0, California badly needs an agenda change from regulation and contention to capacity building. First, the state needs to create and use the capacity to design learning using 21st Century information tools. Rather than designing “one best system” as the developers of the early 20th Century learning model sought to do, we must adopt the notion of continuous improvement and redesign, what Google calls “permanent Beta testing.”

Second, we need to carefully deregulate. In many ways, charter school law discriminates against existing school districts, making it easy for charters to be innovative while failing to scrape four decades of regulatory barnacles from the hull of district-run schools. Gov. Jerry Brown promised deregulation in his education platform. In addition to fiscal flexibility, he and the state school board should foster the ability to blend education technology into district-run schools.

Third, California needs to invest in a learning infrastructure for students. Think of it as a combination of Facebook for school, the best computer game you ever saw, and a smart app for your mind. By thinking of the student as the end-user rather than designing educational products that will be attractive to a textbook adoption committee, the state can vastly open up learning to new participants, approaches, and ideas.

Over the last year, I have visited schools where people think outside the conventions of the acquisition and storage model, and where learning is organized in engaging ways. Synthesizing these experiences and the rapidly growing research literature on learning, technology, and open education, it is possible to sketch the design of Learning 2.0. Over the next few months, I will be coloring in some of the elements of a modern learning system and the ways we might get there. The first of these postings can be found at Conditions of Education in California, and at www.mindworkers.com.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

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5 Responses to “Why the politics we’ve got won’t produce the schools we need”

  1. Charles Taylor Kerchner said

    on March 12, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Russ introduces the open-textbook idea and the notion that students should be able to take tests on line.  I believe that the concept of a text is changing.  The Wiki (as in Wikipedia) notion will make its way to texts rapidly, if we allow it.  There are layers of regulation that need to be changed to do this officially, but unofficially, teachers are already experimenting.  Hadn’t thought of a web cam as classroom monitor.  Interesting.

  2. Charles Taylor Kerchner said

    on March 12, 2011 at 7:37 am

    I agree with both Andrew and Paul, and in future posts I’ll be writing in more detail about an infrastructure that would connect teachers with one another and also connect teachers, students, and families.  You can get at least a sketch of where I am heading by reading the 7 page piece that I’ve posted at http://www.mindworkers.com.  More comments and suggestions are welcome.
    Paul mentioned teachers using emails to communicate with parents.  I’ve followed the use of Moodle in our local school district.  Teachers are not required to use it, but most high schools and junior high teachers do, and parents have come to expect that teachers will.  So, without a central office mandate, the communications and classroom management system has had a rapid spread over the last five years.

  3. Russ Lemon said

    on March 12, 2011 at 12:39 am

    With respect to Jr. High School and High School, there are several areas where computers and the internet can help.  I believe every textbook should be on-line for parent review.  There are too many errors in California textbooks.  Errors need to be corrected.  Second, parents can review the chapters and help their children understand concepts.  One advantage of on-line textbooks would be hyperlinks.  New words or concepts can have links to a more detained explanation and perhaps examples.  A student could take an on-line practice test and get immediate feedback of his or her comprehension.  Parents could then help with missed questions.  If both parent and child do not fully understand, they can send an e-mail to the teacher for next day’s lesson.  Do not underestimate the power of videos to explain concepts.  And in a foreign language class, there are some amazing programs that can listen to a student and translate what was said back into English.  And they can speak in that language.
    Computers need to help with grading.  No, I am not promoting multiple choice answers.  Computers have the ability in math and science of reading an answer and determining if it is close enough to be correct.  [Essays, of course, need to be grade by teachers.]
    Unfortunately, some classes need a web-cam on the class.  There are students who do not know how to behave.  If something happens that should not happen, such a record may be the only thing that can defend the teacher.
     
     
     

  4. Paul Muench said

    on March 11, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    And lets not forget a child’s most important teachers…parents.  Even as a parent, what Andrew K. is saying makes so much sense to me.  I’d love to see school staffs get access to the communication technology so many of us depend upon.  Although there are still districts where the staff has chosen to be more of a reason not to use technology than the lack of technology.  At our school about a third of teachers will not use e-mail to communicate with parents.  And the district will not adopt a policy to require teachers to use e-mail to communicate with parents, even though the district provides every teacher with an e-mail account.  I can’t speak for every school, but at least our school has also provided every teacher with a computer to access that e-mail account (only 2-years old too).  But I’m much harder pressed to see how computers will actually help children learn, particularly young children.  I can imagine technology being used as a delivery system for excellent lectures relieving teachers of the need to engage in that activity.  But some of what I’ve read about what makes excellent teachers is their ability to engage children in learning.  I can also imagine computers being able to make drill more interesting.  But my own experience, with young children, is that they’d rather play flash cards with parents than use what I would consider a pretty cool program to do the same thing.  But I do know that the Rocketship schools seem to be making good use of technology, and I’d be curious to know more about what they are doing.  So I’d love to hear more about the tradeoffs between using technology vs. relying solely on teachers.  Looking forward to what you have to say.

  5. Andrew K. said

    on March 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Bravo, Charles. Excellent piece. I particularly love the idea of investing in a learning infrastructure for students, but I’d add a fourth component. I think we need to simultaneously build an infrastructure for adults – teachers, staff, management, etc. Empowering these individuals with user-friendly tools and clear, adaptive processes to analyze the quality of education they provide to students is equally important.

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