But Who Will Design The Robots?

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In one of his always interesting “Disruptions” column in the New York Times, Nick Bilton held forth on how robots are replacing workers at Amazon and elsewhere. These robots, a researcher at Johns Hopkins told Bilton, “will help augment people’s abilities, allowing us to use robots for things humans cannot do.” And, the Hopkins guy adds, we will always “have to have someone who builds the robots.”

Columnist Bilton is upset for the workers who will lose their jobs, but his column is also a wake-up call. I read it as an implicit critique of a narrow curriculum that puts aside just about anything that encourages the imagination in favor of ‘the basics,’ meaning basic reading and basic math.

Stressing the basics is no way to make sure that we will produce people to design, build and operate robots, or create the future in other ways. We need schools that encourage the imagination, that allow and support deep learning, and that fan the sparks of creativity — not stomp out the fires.

EdTech
In the East Bay, new approaches to education are taking shape.

However, a narrow and unimaginative curriculum is not a new phenomenon. Just as armies are supposedly spending their time getting ready to fight the last war, many schools and colleges seem to focus on preparing young people for the day before yesterday — and have been doing so for a long time.

I have some direct experience in this. In the late 1960s, I taught for two years at a historically Black public college, Virginia State, in Petersburg, Virginia. For a privileged young white man from New England, it was a life-changing experience.

One sociological lesson stuck with me. The college stressed vocational training for its students, most of whom were the first in their families to attend college. While some studied to become chefs and barbers, a very popular major involved computers, which at the time were still pretty new. These students were being trained to be key-punch operators! (Ask your parents!!) It didn’t take a wizard to know that, in a very short time, absolutely no one would be able to make a living as a key-punch operator, but that didn’t slow down the training program. Disrupting that assembly line would have required more than foresight; it would have meant sticking one’s neck out and challenging the comfortable status quo –remember, this was Southside Virginia, not a safe place for African-Americans to challenge the system. Easier and safer to prepare students for yesterday than to make waves and risk one’s own career.

I’ve often wondered what happened to those young men and women. I hope they found other work, and other opportunities to learn new skills.

What about today? Not only are we not challenging the status quo of ‘basic education,’ we seem to be cutting to the bone and getting rid of ‘frills’ like the arts. While I am hearing and reading stories about larger classes and fewer ‘non-essential’ programs in lots of places, Texas seems to be leading the way in cutting education (big surprise).

But, wake up, folks. The arts are basic, as this report from Florida demonstrates. Some of you may have seen our piece for the NewsHour on this topic:

So what do we do about a narrow, boring curriculum and the failing schools that generally seem to accompany that approach? It takes courage to challenge the runaway train of the current approach. As the metaphor suggests, standing in front of a train is not a recipe for a long life. The money and the power are with the status quo.

Some corporations are getting involved, although maybe not as a direct challenge. If you watched the Masters Golf tournament, you saw ExxonMobil commercials about improving America’s competitive position in math and science. That company’s foundation has spent millions on math and science education. (I also liked that many of the ads said ‘Support our Teachers,’ a too-rare message these days.)

Better news comes from San Francisco. Some high tech entrepreneurs there are resisting school-as-usual and getting their hands dirty trying to change things. Right now they seem to be involved because they have children of their own, but let’s hope they are intent on helping other people’s children as well. Let’s hope these interesting approaches to schooling become models, not just boutique luxury items for the privileged.

Cursing the darkness never did anybody any good. Let’s celebrate — and copy — those who are lighting candles to show us the way.

Going For The Gold

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After 37 years with NPR and PBS, I’ve finally come to my senses. I have had it with the non-profit world. It’s my turn to make the big bucks.

Because education is what I know, that’s where I intend to set up shop. I am going into the business of remedial education, and I know it’s going to be a gold mine. All I need are failing kids, and I don’t see any signs that the supply is drying up.

What has prompted this 180-degree turn? This sudden change of heart?

It was a recent news report, the key paragraph quoted below:

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons, has sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for ‘challenging corrections budgets.’ In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prison would remain at least 90 percent full.

(The emphasis was added.)

You may be wondering what a report on prisons has to do with education, but this is deja vu all over again, in Yogi’s memorable phrase, because back in 1982 I spent six months in juvenile institutions in several states, including Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas, for an NPR documentary “Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Crime” (which won the George Polk Award that year).

Here’s what I learned: Juvenile institutions remained at-capacity or near-capacity no matter what the juvenile crime rate happened to be. For example, when juvenile offenses declined precipitously in Minnesota, the authorities simply changed the rules about what got you locked up. They criminalized behavior that previously led to a slap on the wrist. One particular example sticks in my mind: Until the crime rate went down, girls who ran away from home had been classified as PINS, persons in need of supervision, which requires no jail time. Then, rather than have the juvenile facilities empty, running away became an offense that warranted incarceration.

Prison
The prison system could be the inspiration for a successful economic model!

What a revelation: the needs of the institution — for bodies to watch over — took precedence over the needs of youth. ‘We’ve got the facility, the guards, the payroll; we need youthful offenders,’ the logic went. Because the dominant value system favored adults and jobs over kids, they didn’t even need a guarantee.

So you can see the brilliance of Corrections Corporation of America, asking for an iron-clad guarantee from the 48 states that they will keep the prisons 90 percent full! Who cares what the crime rate is. Just keep the convicts coming.

Now, let’s talk about my business plan.

What I am going to offer states and school districts is this: I will take over their remedial education in return for their guarantee that they will keep giving high school diplomas to students who aren’t ready to function.

Come to think of it, I may not need a written guarantee. Just look at the track record of school reform since in began in earnest with the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, and since that time governments and foundations have spent billions of dollars. The dropout rate hasn’t changed much, and the number of graduates needing remedial work when they go to college has climbed dramatically.

Who have been the primary beneficiaries of ‘school reform,’ I ask you?

Duh, the for-profit companies! While consultants and think tanks have done OK, and reporters have been kept busy, the real money has been in testing and textbooks and technology and construction.

Frankly, ‘school reform’ is too expensive for states to continue with, especially since it hasn’t worked. They can cut back on reform, sign with me, and save a bundle.

I have some definite advantages over schools: (1) the technology to diagnose deficiencies and create specific programs that address those shortcomings and measure accomplishment; (2) a population of (finally) motivated young people who realize they need certain skills if they want to find decent jobs; and (3) powerful financial incentives that encourage me to teach them quickly.

Regarding No. 1: schools have semesters, but I will have self-paced modules. Learn it, prove you’ve learned it, and you’re done.

No. 2: While schools have lots of students who are bored and fed up with being treated like numbers, my clients — those former students — will be eager to learn and get on with their lives.

No. 3 is the key. Unlike today’s educators, I will get paid only when the students succeed. Should I fail, I get hurt where it matters: in the pocketbook. In most education systems, failure is blamed on the students. And then their failure is usually ‘punished’ by promotion to the next grade.

So my approach is revolutionary.

Is there competition? I am not the least bit worried about the Departments of Remediation that some colleges have created, because they function exactly like those juvenile institutions back in the 1980s — they need remedial students to stay open. So if they are successful in helping some kids, they will inevitably lower the bar for ‘remediation,’ in order to keep the warm bodies coming. Their financial incentives are screwed up.

Mind, you, I am smarter than that. I will not be calling what I do ‘remediation’ or anything that sounds remotely like failure. What I am going to offer to do is ‘certify’ the skill levels of high school graduates; it’s the same way that the mechanic ‘certifies’ your wreck of a car by banging out all the dents, changing the oil, points and plugs and installing new shock absorbers so it is ready for the road!

The only possible threat to my business would be an education system that focused on the needs of individual children; a system that taught and encouraged thinking instead of teaching (and testing) things. In that approach, time would be the variable, performance the constant. Students would be empowered to dig deeply into issues and…. (Why bother going on about this — it’s not going to happen!)

I’m looking for investors. Act now, to get in early.