On Wednesday, Sept. 14, 9 pm ET, PBS and NOVA will air a two hour special called “School of the Future.” The advertisement tells us much. They are warning that the future for children demands that students need better preparation to succeed due to globalization. What they probably won’t tell us is that this future will likely continue to be manipulated by corporations.
This abstract, strange future they speak about (possibly puzzling to the smartest among us), will be about technology, of course.
Their message appears to be that we better address technology that can be used with students, even to study their brains to see if they can learn faster and better. The goal is to close the achievement gap.
The ad has that hint of emergency for which school reformers are known.
Sal Kahn of Kahn Academy fame will be on the program. I don’t mind Kahn’s online instruction, but it is naïve to believe that such a program will replace public schools and real teachers.
And that’s what today’s technology is about. Don’t be deceived by the few teachers that might be shown on this program.
In some parts of the country they are sitting children online in teacherless preschools.
They are replacing elementary, middle, and high school classes led by teachers with all online instruction, even though research shows that more computer time doesn’t work out as well as less screen time.
Many school districts have wasted an exorbitant amount of money on iPads that have not proven to be worth what administrators thought when they purchased them. In some places they sit unused in the closet.
Technology isn’t bad. It can benefit teachers, students and parents. But it should not be made to appear like it will miraculously improve the way students learn used alone.
Many parents understand this. The reasonable use of technology is what Parents Across America recently advocated for in a position paper. They recognize the overarching push many corporations are doing to destroy public schooling by creating all online schooling.
The last chapter in my book Losing America’s Schools: The Fight to Save Public Education is about the technology threat. I believe, like many, that the ultimate goal of the school reformers involves closing public schools in favor of all online–at home or in substandard charter schools set up like warehouses.
Technology might help the homebound student or the student in rural areas, but this is an alternative. It can also provide review for students who need it, or advanced information for students who want it, but it is not as good as brick-and-mortar schooling.
It is also troubling to hear repeated claims that computers will individualize schooling which we will hear about in this program. They might give students lessons at their level of understanding, but truly personalized learning involves real teachers and students with which to connect. The human element is critical.
Having taught in the area of special education and mental health, I am not opposed to brain research. We need, for example, to find what causes children to have learning disabilities and/or autism. Serious mental health problems like schizophrenia have always been a mystery.
But there is something icky about seeing a young child hooked up to wires with the idea implied by the ad, that the child’s learning can somehow be improved—to close the achievement gap.
Really? Will a pill be developed to give low-income children grit and rigor so they can catch up to the wealthier kids from the suburbs?
I doubt this will be mentioned in the program, but brain research might not be reliable in all situations. There are also privacy and other ethical concerns. Care needs to be taken in predicting or making sweeping generalizations about learning based on MRI reports.
The ad showcases Professor Linda Darling-Hammond who many, myself included, hoped would be education secretary under President Obama.
Darling-Hammond is right when she says “inequality is America’s Achilles heel,” but I would argue that a whole lot more could be done to fix our poor schools before tinkering with brain studies.
Failed Public Schools
The program is introduced by the usual claim that schools have failed—the ultimate insult to teachers and a negative reflection on local school boards. The reformers have used this claim for 30 years.
They probably won’t tell us is that our schools are failing due to reforms to privatize them. I am referring especially to high-stakes testing and one-size-fits-all standards.
Finding the Magic
In the program they speak of finding the magic to “enhance learning.”
Abracadabera! What about Finland?
I am wondering if in “School of the Future” they will discuss Finland. Finland has always done well at educating their students. Yet, they are not about high-stakes testing. They don’t start formal reading instruction until children are older. They seem to care deeply about the welfare of the students themselves.
Most everyone knows this about Finland, but, strangely, we see little attempt to emulate what they do here in this country.
Some scoff at Finland’s great education system because there is less diversity. But if it is good for one child, why isn’t it good for all children?
Or, I wonder if they will discuss reinstating the arts in our schools, since the arts give all children something to care about, especially if they are poor or struggle to learn.
Last July, PBS aired another program called “From the Streets to the Stage: The Journey of Fredrick Davis.” I think this poignant, true drama about a boy who overcame monumental difficulties to become a dancer, has much meaning for our public schools and the future.
Where is the magic involved with returning the arts to our public schools?
Public schools should be to find the strengths and weaknesses of all students, not survival of the fittest.
You can dream all you want about schools of the future, but we have students in schools today that are not only being ignored when it comes to their needs, they are being mistreated. Until this country takes care of what is real and fixable now, it is ridiculous to postulate about the future.
Still, I’ll watch this program to see if I misjudged the ad—that’s only fair. I will see if there is something salvageable for students that I missed. And even if the program is just as Orwellian as I think it will be, it is important to be informed.
“School of the Future” is sponsored by the following:
- American Graduate
- Carnegie Corporation of New York
- Cancer Treatment Centers of Amerca
- David H. Koch Fund for Science
- Corporation for Public Broadcasting