Tech Ed

The attempt to reinvent the wheel continues in the world of education.  An old system of public education that seemed to work for many years, broke down under the pressure of new demographics and increasing numbers of students.  The failures of education today have been documented and attacked from many sides, currently figuring as an issue in the coming election.

The wish to set nationwide standards for achievement led to the Common Core, theoretically an agreed on curriculum to be mastered by grade level.  This in turn involved multiple tests at each grade to measure if such achievement standards were met.  The evaluation of students, teachers and schools themselves were connected to success or failure in meeting standards. 

This approach has culminated in a mass rebellion by parents and students with increasing numbers opting out of taking the tests.  The conclusion widely reached has been that class time revolved around “teaching to the test,” and that the tests themselves measured neither a student’s ability or a teacher’s competence.  Currently the conflict appears to be between dismantling Common Core completely and continuing to tinker with improvements both in the number and content of tests.

Of course, in this mix is the ongoing controversy about charter schools and whether or not their success has depended on accepting only outstanding students.  There are those who are firmly committed to the importance of public education in a democracy and see charter school as siphoning off money that should be used to improve the public school system.

As the controversy continues, new theories of education appear as a revolt against the move toward standardization that has dominated public education in recent decades.  One approach that is now receiving some attention is based on the idea of “personalized learning.”  Theoretically, this approach recognizes and adapts to differences in students’ abilities, interests and cultural backgrounds.

The application of the approach appears to involve massive use of technology and unsurprisingly is currently being promoted by Silicon Valley pioneers.  Mark Zuckerberg’s experience participating in the failed attempt to revolutionize the Newark school system has been described in Dale Russakoff’s recent book, “The Prize.”  Having been burned, the Zuckerbergs have now made a massive financial contribution to education supporting the concept of personalized education.

For some reason, the desire for change too often leads to throwing out the baby with the bath water.  In identifying standardization as a problem, personalized education seems to move toward a total focus on the individual student.  On the surface this seems to evoke individualized learning but as translated in practice the difference is significant.  Individualized learning is based on a common curriculum with common objectives the goal being to achieve levels of competence in key areas.  Recognition is given to the pace and style of learning of the individual student. 

Personalized learning is based on differing objectives as shaped by the personality, interests and abilities of each student.  The curriculum is shaped in large measure by the individual student herself and relies on the use of tablets and videotaping in the pursuit of this approach.  In one sense, the philosophy of Ken Robinson and others who have advocated that education should allow students to follow their passions is being operationalized as a system.  In this instance, a system that makes technology key.

It is strange that just as there is gaining awareness of how young people’s preoccupation with their phones, tablets and other devices is destroying other values such as social interaction and creativity, technology is being promoted as the answer for educational reform.

In the rejection of the old and search for the new, lost is the well understood fact that the relationship between teacher and student is basic to successful learning.  Parents know that good teachers are the ones who have made the clearest difference in their children’s educational success.  Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we should provide the oil that can make the wheels we have run better.