Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Fixing K-12: technology is no silver bullet

Three items from the San Jose Mercury News this week offer competing theories of K-12 education reform:

A local news story Sunday (May 30):

U.S. should look abroad for education reform, study says
By Sharon Noguchi

By the thousands, U.S. public schools have undergone overhauls, launched pilot projects and experimented with "best practices." Yet despite countless reforms, overall student achievement has stagnated for about 10 years, according to national and international measurements.

Instead, the report from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank recommends emulating foreign success stories, primarily by expanding national standards for curriculum, administering smarter and less frequent testing, improving teacher quality, salaries and authority.

The report suggests expanding on the "common core" standards in math and English that most states adopted last year. In the five exemplary countries, national curricula also cover science, social sciences, arts, music and often religion, morals or philosophy.
A column Sunday by one of the Merc’s business columnists:
Building schools for the 21st century will take courage
By Mike Cassidy
Mercury News Columnist

I spent a good part of last weekend closed in a hotel conference room listening to smart people talk about kids, schools and technology.

And a strange thing happened: I started feeling better about the future of public education in California.

Moving our country's public schools back into the upper echelon of rankings worldwide is going to take courage. This is no time to be afraid of the dark side of digital media and the Internet. Quit fretting over digital distractions and the specter of online stalkers. Stop obsessing about completely controlling your kids' media diets. … And push your kids' schools to do the same.

Some middle and high schools are already out there. There are schools, yes public schools, where each kid has a laptop. Schools that have social networks on which students collaborate. Schools in which the kids write the rules for proper use of technology. Schools where students and teachers use smartphones to analyze scientific data. Schools that rely on computer games that send students on quests requiring the mastery of scientific and mathematical principles.
A letter to the editor Wednesday (June 1) by a “Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship” (and K-12 education activist):
Letters to the editor
True reform needed: Teach writing skills

In two stories May 29 about K-12 education reform, one need was conspicuously absent: teaching students how to write. I get college seniors who received social promotions from local high schools (and middle schools and elementary schools) but never mastered basic writing skills.

It's not sexy: it doesn't involve tablets or texting or social networks, nor does it show up in the multiple-choice benchmarks comparing the United States to other developed countries.

Instead, it requires a meticulous, labor-intensive process to teach kids how to express an idea, to organize it into coherent sentences, paragraphs and essays, and to do so without grammatical errors. By doing so, the students also learn logical thinking and how to support an argument -- crucial skills for any career.

Joel West
Professor San Jose State
In response to the letter, I  got an email from a professor in another SJSU college who had similar problems:
I am shocked and dismayed that so many of our students at SJSU not only have atrocious writing skills, but that they receive such high grades in courses that require them to write. I have given students Ds and Fs on term papers only to discover the same student received an A or B in [the required writing class] or another lower division class. 
It doesn’t take a college degree to figure out which theory I find most convincing — after the past nine years of teaching an essay-based course for college seniors at a Silicon Valley public university. As the strategy faculty have argued for years, a major reason our students arrive at SJSU unable to write is because they are unable to think. We try to make things better, but aren’t always successful.

Update Wednesday 9:30pm: I also got an email from Helene Joseph-Weil, retired music professor from Fresno State. Here are excerpts from her own experience:
No matter how talented or brilliant a student may be, if he/she can't construct a sentence with proper syntax and punctuation, professional or academic brilliance can never be fully realized. 

In the past few years, I've truly despaired that the majority of my students at Fresno State cannot construct a sentence that has the subject and verb in agreement; their spelling is not up to standard usage, they confuse parts of speech [there vs. their, it's vs its, you're vs. your, etc.]; topics for papers are not presented according to clearly defined guidelines; and there is a marked inability to express their ideas in well-constructed, coherent sentences.… They demonstrate good ideas, even creative research, but seem to have a complete lack of ability to express either.

Every once in a while I will have the joy of a student in my studio who has good writing skills, but almost all of these are home-schooled or come from families whose parents are teachers or doctors. Strong writing skills  shouldn't be the exception, but the norm for entry level university students, and the current valuing of technological and scientific skills over the humanities must be combined with the ability to express the very ideas gleaned from such studies.
and the Merc is running this letter Thursday in response:
Letters to the editor
Practicing what he preaches

Bravo to professor Joel West of San Jose State (Letters, June 1) for his letter about the importance of teaching basic writing skills in grades K-12. The message is right on, and his clear, precise letter is a perfect example of the skills he advocates.

Dave Stein
Mountain View

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