The September 16 NYTimes Magazine featured several articles on education, including Annie Murphy Paul’s piece ominously titled “The Machines are Taking Over“ . The article described how Neil Heffernan, a Teach For America washout in the late 1990s was determined to develop a computer program that would provide the kind of individualized tutoring for inner city urban kids that his fiancé provided to more affluent suburban students. As he filmed her work with students in mathematics, he quickly observed that tutoring required lots of interaction and required that the tutor pick up subtle cues from the student.
While computer programs alone were incapable of replicating that kind of interaction, when combined with facial recognition and years of research it was possible for Heffernan and his team to identify cues that indicated student boredom, frustration, and lack of concentration and, once that was recognized, offer alternative activities or problems that could get the student back on track.
Contrary to the articles title, I believe that machines will NEVER take over for humans, but, if they are combined with careful and targeted human interaction machines could ensure that all students learn the content. Instead of “taking over” machines could be an effective means of providing the baseline instruction— fundamental math and literacy skills– in a non-threatening, non-competitive and engaging format thereby freeing the teacher to build on those skills and offer instruction in the areas that cannot be taught with “machines”: the so-called “critical thinking skills”.
The dualistic thinking of “machines vs. humans” limits innovation in the same way that “unions vs. management” limits innovation. We need to find those areas where synergy is possible instead of areas where conflict appears and in that way move forward.
Truthout, a progressive blog, posted its synopsis of a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report comparing the US education system to thirty other countries under the headline: Shocking Report Explodes Five Myths About American Education.
Here are some “highlights” from the OECD report, using the “myth” headings:
MYTH: The US education system provides more upward mobility than other nations.
REALITY: We rank 25th out of 28 countries who track this data… “The odds that a young person in the U.S. will be in higher education if his or her parents do not have an upper secondary education are just 29 percent — one of the lowest levels among OECD countries.“
MYTH: US teachers work less and get paid more.
REALITY: Only two of the 38 countries surveyed had teachers who worked more hours and our primary teachers work more than any country in the world… and in terms of pay? OECD reports: “Despite high overall levels of spending on education, teacher salaries in the U.S. compare poorly. While in most OECD countries teacher salaries tend be lower, on average, than the salaries earned by other workers with higher education, in the U.S. the difference is large, especially for teachers with minimum qualifications.”
MYTH: Big government funds higher education.
REALITY: We DO provide more government funding than nearly every country in the world for higher education… but our higher education costs so much more that “…62 percent are from private sources. Across all OECD countries, 70 percent of expenditures on higher education come from public sources, and 30 percent are from private sources.” this is good news for banks who loan money to students to pay for these expenses but bad news for students who go into debt.
MYTH: We provide excellent pre-school education.
REALITY: Here’s our ranking: for three year-olds we’re 5th out of 36; for 4 year olds we’re 28th out of 38. Why? “On average across OECD countries, 84 percent of pupils in early childhood education attend programmes in public schools or government-dependent private institutions, while in the U.S., 55 percent of early childhood pupils attend programmes in public schools, and 45 percent attend independent private programmes. In the U.S. the typical starting age for early childhood education is 4 years old, while in 21 other OECD countries, it is 3 years old or younger.”
MYTH: We have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world
REALITY: “The U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (42 percent).”
why do we believe in these myths. Because they ARE true for affluent Americans. Kids in affluent districts
“…get plenty of early childhood education…don’t attend run-down schools… don’t run up debts in order to go to college. In fact, our elite (parents) are positioned perfectly to thrive in a global economy. They can attack public schools, teachers unions, big government and not suffer the consequences. (Affluent parents) are quite happy… to swallow the myth of American exceptionalism, even when reality shows how exceptionally bad we are at providing decent education for all of our people.
I omitted some phrases that implied the affluent parents want things this way because I don;t believe that is true. I think most parents DO believe the myth that poverty can be overcome by good teaching because it DOES happen in some rare instances and because NOT believing that myth loud require many affluent parents and communities to face the fact that they ARE advantaged, that their status is not “hard-earned”. The fact is that their status IS hard-earned even though they did have a leg up on their cohorts who were born in poverty… but the other fact is that their cohorts born into poverty started with a disadvantage that made their race a lot harder to run.
A report issued by the “What Works Clearinghouse” of the Institute of Educational Science concluded that
…on average, CMOs (Charter School Management Organizations) did not have a statistically significant impact on middle school student performance on state assessments in math, reading, science, or social studies. Similarly, there was not a statistically significant impact of CMOs on graduation rates and rates of post-secondary enrollment for high school students. However, there was substantial variation in the direction, magnitude and statistical significance of the impacts for individual CMOs.
So… there were some charters that DID outperform public schools and some that did a lot worse… but when all was said and done, charters did no better than public schools in the same environment. So why the rush to charter schools? Methinks saving taxpayers money might have something to do with cost!