Tablets, unions, and education – part one

Part one: The state of education

In this four-part series, we look at the impact of tablet computing on education: how tablets can save North American students, but how their ability to collect and analyze how students learn will make teaching more accountable — something that unions will oppose aggressively as they try to protect their members’ jobs.

This is a detailed write-up of the Short Bit I first presented at Bitnorth 2010, with lots of background and links to references I found while putting together that presentation. We decided to break it into several parts to make it easier to digest.

In his novel The Diamond Age, author Neal Stephenson describes a digital book his heroine carries with her. Dubbed the Young Lady’s Interactive Primer, this device is part guidebook, part tablet, and part personal guardian. It’s interactive, changing stories and allegories based on the predicaments our heroine faces. Some of its content is recorded; much of it is prepared, on the fly, by actors thousands of miles away.

Much as he colored in the picture of virtual reality — Stephenson coined the term Avatar as a representation of a virtual self, and his novel Snow Crash is the inspiration for Second Life — he may have nailed tablet computing. With the release of Apple’s iPad, we’re finding dozens of uses for a device we didn’t know we needed. It’s a console, a reader, a movie screen, a musical instrument, a game board, and a window into other worlds.

Beyond all these uses, however, the killer app for tablets could be education. Done right, personal tablets can reverse the precipitous decline of learning in much of the Western world. By putting the world’s knowledge at a student’s fingertips virtually for free, making it interactive, and tailoring it to each student’s abilities and interests, tablets could completely alter the way we teach and learn.

Education is the foundation of prosperity

An illiterate, misinformed population is the hallmark of a failed state. Less educated citizens can’t compete in the global economy, are easily swayed,  and are less likely to make informed decisions. In an information age, an inability to work with information is a death sentence — almost literally, since it correlates with higher rates of infant mortality and lower lifespans.

A Gapminder visualization of the correlation between literacy and life expectancy

Education in the Western world, particularly North America, is on the decline.

One quick note on the scope of this series: As I learned about education, unions, and other subjects, I came across a wide range of research. A preponderance of it was specific to the U.S., but many of the observations about the decline of educational standards apply to a large number of Western nations. As a result, some of the data in here refers to the U.S., some to North America, and some to a broader set of countries. There are several European countries that are succeeding in education, so it would be wrong to lump them into this analysis.

That’s a pretty controversial statement. Many public indicators of literacy are up: the top quartile of America’s universities contain the smartest students anywhere, and standardized testing shows a modest improvement in literacy. The historian Lawrence Cremin argues that “Americans were a more literate population at the end of the 20th century than at any time earlier,” a direct consequence of access to public education.

Look deeper at the state of North American education, however, and things quickly go pear-shaped. Critics caution that the No Child Left Behind Act has simply lowered the bar enough that weak students, ill-equipped to survive in a knowledge-based society, can climb over it. Even Cremin cautions against defining literacy as no more than rudimentary technical skills in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic — because literacy aims at a changing target.

In a recent TED presentation that didn’t pull many punches, Bill Gates makes a case for fixing our ailing schools. If you’re a kid in the U.S., he points out, you a have 30 percent chance of never finishing high school. If you’re a minority, that’s more than 50 percent. Barbara Amiel recently observed out that one in 31 Americans is involved in the legal system somehow, whether by probation, incarceration, or investigation. With numbers like these, Gates reminds us that if you’re in a low income bracket, you have a higher chance of going to jail than you do of getting a college degree.

Numeracy — quantitative literacy — is particularly bad.

According to Mathematics and democracy: the case for quantitative literacy, “Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that the average mathematics performance of seventeen-year-old students has risen just one percent in 25 years and remains, at 307, in the lower half of the “basic” range (286–336) and well below the “proficient” range (336–367). Moreover, despite slight growth in recent years, average scores of Hispanic students (292) and black students (286) are near the bottom of the “basic” range.”

What’s scary isn’t just that education has stalled — it’s that the rest of the world has kept going. We need more literacy and numeracy today than we did decades ago. Today’s citizen must understand risks of infection and read voting results. He has to screen advertising claims and measure growth rates. He must interpret data and work with computers every day.

Cremin describes two kinds of quantitative literacy: inert and liberating. “Inert” literacy is the basics: comprehending instructions and performing repeated tasks. It’s the kind of literacy we’d expect in a stalled state, where citizens have limited opportunity and aren’t expected to question or change. And increasingly, it’s considered good enough in our educational systems.

By contrast, Cremin’s “liberating” literacy means that individuals can find, analyze, and communicate information. They can apply it to problems and use it to make decisions. The educator John Dewey called this “popular enlightenment” and it’s the basis of a democracy, because only liberated citizens can think for themselves, make their own decisions, and discriminate between truth and lies.

Most U.S. students lack the literacy they need to live well in modern society; they suffer from “math panic” and retreat into faith and bumper-sticker politics. They’re ill-equipped for today’s in-demand jobs. Virtually every college finds that many students need remedial mathematics. We don’t even understand the equal sign properly.

Not fully understanding the “equal sign” in a math problem could be a key to why U.S. students underperform their peers from other countries in math.

“About 70 percent of middle grades students in the United States exhibit misconceptions, but nearly none of the international students in Korea and China have a misunderstanding about the equal sign, and Turkish students exhibited far less incidence of the misconception than the U.S. students,”

Students who exhibit the correct understanding of the equal sign show the greatest achievement in mathematics and persist in fields that require mathematics proficiency like engineering, according to their research. “Chinese textbooks provided the best examples for students and that even the best U.S. textbooks, those sponsored by the National Science Foundation, were lacking relational examples about the equal sign.”

Two million minutes

Students have about two million minutes of high school, and how they spend that time varies widely throughout the world. The documentary 2 Million Minutes looks at this period in the lives of three pairs of students: two from California, two from China, and two from India. It’s a depressing story.

When the filmmakers asked the overseas students what they wanted to be, Chinese students listed scientist, astronaut, or doctor. Indian students aspired to be a computer programmer, or a physicist.

Americans, by contrast, told the filmmakers they simply wanted to be celebrities.

The film underscores the vast differences between learning in Asia and America. In the U.S., if a child shows prowess at sports, they get her a coach. In India, if a child shows promise in school, the parents hire a teacher. But in the U.S., tutors are largely remedial: We don’t encourage intelligence; rather, we try to correct stupidity.

This is a problem that’s finally getting mainstream attention. Several other films are hitting the screens now. Take a look at this trailer for Waiting For Superman, which tackles the subject of charter schools and the collapse of the educational system.

Then have a quick look at The Cartel, a documentary on corruption and obfuscation in school systems.

If you watched those three trailers, you may be wondering what the future looks like. It’s bleak. North America doesn’t value education and science. We put athletes and musicians on pedestals, ignoring teachers and dismissing scientific inquiry in our politics and media.

We’ll pay the price for this attitude, but it will take decades. The effects of a weakened educational system take a generation to show themselves in the workforce — long after the party that weakened the system is no longer in power — so it’s easy for elected officials to turn a blind eye to the problem.

Big classes make dumb students

Education is imperiled for dozens of reasons, and there are no magic cure-alls. One big problem, however, is classroom size. Simply put, teaching doesn’t scale well. The Center for Public Education reviewed 19 well-researched studies, and concluded that smaller classes did better.

They found that:

  • Smaller classes in the early grades (K-3) can boost student academic achievement;
  • A class size of no more than 18 students per teacher is required to produce the greatest benefits;
  • A program spanning grades K-3 will produce more benefits than a program that reaches students in only one or two of the primary grades;
  • Minority and low-income students show even greater gains when placed in small classes in the primary grades;
  • The experience and preparation of teachers is a critical factor in the success or failure of class size reduction programs;
  • Reducing class size will have little effect without enough classrooms and well-qualified teachers; and
  • Supports, such as professional development for teachers and a rigorous curriculum, enhance the effect of reduced class size on academic achievement.

The more students you have in a class, the less tailored each lesson can be to individual students. That means lessons are one-size-fits all, watered down by special interest groups and structured to appease the lowest common denominator. Big classes are distracted classes, and bad kids enjoy the same asymmetry as terrorists, because it takes very little effort for one student to interrupt the learning of forty others.

There simply aren’t enough teachers to give every student personal attention, helping those who struggle and accelerating those who excel.

In part two, we look at something that could reverse the decline of education in much of the Western world: tablet computing, and its promise of an interactive, digital, analyzed “classroom of one”.

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