Marie’s November Musings

Submitted by Six Red Marbles on Fri, 12/02/2011

Quote of the Month
"It’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st century."

-- Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education


The latest round of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), popularly known as “the nation’s report card,” show a slight increase in math but no improvement in reading, where scores have been flat for four years. On the positive side, test results show a narrowing of the achievement gap for poor and minority students, particularly in math for African American and Hispanic students. 

MY TAKE: After all the billions of dollars spent on education and the intense focus on education over the last several decades, we’re still not where we once were or where we need to be. Will we ever reverse this negative trend? I am optimistic. Education is on the cusp of increased digital instruction, the inevitable retraining of teachers, and the willingness of educators to try innovations, and all of these “disruptions” should create a more level playing field for all students, resulting in greater achievement. But we’ve got to give it some time. I’m not sure the next round of NAEP scores in four years will show a dramatic positive change, but I’m hopeful it will show some progress.

Last month, I posted Diane Ravitch’s report on her investigation of Finnish education and the country’s consistently high position in global-education rankings. To further our discussion, I have reviewed the recently released book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg. Here are some of the salient points from the book:

  • All pupils are grouped heterogeneously in normal classes, without segregation or selection of pupils based on their characteristics. Children with developmental disorders or other disabilities are placed in the same classes as all other pupils. Teaching is adjusted to serve the different abilities in the classroom.
  • The school day starts between 8 and 9 a.m. and finishes between 1 and 2 p.m. Each class has 25 lessons per week, and each lesson is 45 minutes long. That’s a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes of instruction each day with 9 of the 25 weekly lessons in art, music, craft work, and sports.
  • Schools serve a healthy, tasty, warm lunch each day for all pupils. (School meals have been free of charge for all children in Finland since 1943.)
  • Homework has continuously become less important. Pupils do their learning assignments mostly during the school day so that they can spend time on personal activities at home. On average, pupils spend less than one hour per day doing homework.
  • Standardized tests are not used. Pupils’ progress is measured by school-made summative and diagnostic assessments.
  • All teachers have master’s degrees from a Finnish university. Only Finland’s best and most committed teachers make it into the profession due to its popularity and the intense competition to become a teacher.

I highly recommend this book to you. Although there are obvious cultural and economic differences between our country and Finland, surely we could benefit from studying the Finnish education model and identifying valuable ideas we could implement.

At the risk of appearing to make a political statement (which I’m not), I’m at a loss for words after reading this post, summarized below, from The New York Times, which I realize is making a loud comment nonetheless. Well, here it is: 

Newt Gingrich, contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has proffered a “radical proposal to fundamentally change the culture of poverty in America and give people a chance to rise very rapidly.” His idea: in poverty-stricken [my italics] K–12 districts, schools should fire the school janitors and enlist students as young as 9 to 14 years old to clean hallways and bathrooms and pay them a wage. Says Gingrich, “…the kids would actually do work; they would have cash; they would have pride in their schools; they’d begin the process of rising…”

It seems as though I include a post about Salman Khan every month. And this month is no exception. Khan has built a huge following for his digital Khan Academy—more than 2,700 educational videos (free!) viewed by tens of millions of students and teachers and incorporated into school curricula across the country. 

Ever growing and always innovative, Khan is using part of a $5 million grant he received from the O’Sullivan Foundation to create the next iteration of the Khan Academy, albeit surprisingly, in the physical world.

This summer, Khan will run a camp for kids similar to the program he co-organized at the We Teach Science  camp in Silicon Valley two years ago. At this camp, kids will learn about probability, modeling, negotiating skills, and game theory through involvement with a variety of stimulating math, science, and engineering projects. As Khan states, “The videos are great for learning things at an academic level. You can learn intuition for what a derivative is and about Newtonian mechanics through the online exercises, but this is another deeper level of learning.” 

And wouldn’t you like to go to that summer camp?

Microsoft Qatar has launched a program that will provide access to technology for every individual in the country anytime, anywhere [my italics]. Programs will be instituted to nurture lifelong learning and to provide affordable learning devices to education end-users along with the right resources, content, training, and tools needed to transform education and better engage students in the learning process. BIAS ALERT: Microsoft continues to support education through its educational philanthropy. An admirable thing. But couldn’t you have chosen a more “needy” country than Qatar, Bill?

Students across Texas in grades 5–8 are foregoing traditional science textbooks and moving to Discovery Education’s interactive Science Techbook. The digital “techbook” meets the standards of Science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), can be used by students who speak English or Spanish, and is frequently updated as real-world events impact the content.

In August, the GWINNETT Online Campus in Georgia became the first virtual high school to open. Students can complete their educational goals at their convenience—and from the comfort of their own homes. The Online Campus will expand to include middle school and, if all goes as planned, fifth grade courses by early 2013. 

Knewton (Don’t you love the name?), an educational technology startup, has received $33 million in new venture capital funding as it rolls out an online education platform that can be adopted to each student’s needs. This brings a total for the three-year company to $54 million. So what makes this company different from other e-learning companies? Knewton has developed the world’s first Adaptive Learning Platform (patent pending), which they say customizes educational content to create a uniquely personalized learning experience for every student by breaking up lessons into unique “building blocks,” assessing the student’s performance, and serving up another bite-sized bit of online content that the student should learn next.

In a one-to-one computer initiative success story, the working-class North Carolina town of Mooresville gave every student in grades 3–12 a laptop. State standardized test results showed a whopping 20% increase in “proficiency.” And all of this happened as the poverty rate grew in Mooresville over the last year.

Yes, you read the title correctly. I never envisioned including posts in this blog about any icons from pop culture. But I thought these two merited notice:

On her cable-TV show, O’Donnell mentioned that her children attend the Waldorf School (see October blog reference). She commented that her kids love the school but she isn’t sure how yoga and sewing are going to prepare them for the challenges of the 21st century.

Lady Gaga is launching the Born This Way Foundation with her mother, Cynthia Germanatta, which takes its name from Gaga’s hit single and album. The foundation aims to further inspire young people to “establish a standard of bravery and kindness, as well as a community worldwide that protects and nurtures others in the face of bullying and abandonment.” The foundation will partner with The California Endowment and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Now that’s what I call an outstanding use of celebrity.

I often use my interpretation of “Is the glass half empty or half full?” (it’s both) to present both sides of an argument or topic. And so, in looking at the impact of technology in education and where it’s going today—in fact, in looking at technology’s impact on society as a whole, I offer this observation. There’s no doubt that technology is going to make knowledge, skill building, and life enrichment more accessible to people of all strata of society—where before they would have had little or no hope for such advantages. But it’s also curious to note how a “tech guru,” such as Salman Khan, also sees the benefit of non-tech activities and resources, such as flesh-and-blood interactions between and among students and teachers. Isn’t it great that we have, and will increasingly have, the best of the best resources, both hi-tech and non-tech, to draw upon to bring us to a place where each one of us can tap into our own potential for success and fulfillment? Never has so much been available to so many.


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