How has our public education system gotten so off track?

yanlev/fotolia
Source: yanlev/fotolia

High-stakes testing, obsessive data collection, and lofty promises of technology’s potential to “revolutionize” education are contributing to ever-increasing amounts of school-based screen-time. The invasion is occuring with complete disregard for what it taking away from in terms of basic developmental needs, as well as for screentime's negative influence on nervous system health.  Health and development risks aside, research suggests computer use in schools drags down test scores.  

Why collect copious amounts of data if the process of data collection itself negatively impacts student performance? Or the ability to acquire real-life skills? Not surprisingly, when education policies are ineffective and impractical but continue to move forward like a freight train, what’s typically greasing the wheels is--you guessed it--money.

This month's post is by Tara Ehrcke, a high school math teacher and public education advocate in British Columbia. I highly recommend reading the more complete article found here, as Ms Ehrcke manages to paint a disturbing but clear picture of the complex public-private relationship that’s placing a stranglehold on public education in the US and Canada. Below are snippets of her insightful commentary:

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A false narrative about our schools is spreading through the education community and the public at large. Apparently, with the turn of the clock and the dawn of a new century, our schools are suddenly inadequate. As Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation articulates the issue, “public education in Canada must be transformed to position Canadians for success in the knowledge and digital age.”1  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills puts it this way: “Every child in the U.S. needs 21st century knowledge and skills to succeed as effective citizens, workers and leaders.”2 A common turn of phrase is that we must leave behind the “factory model” of schooling and embrace the technological change of the new century.

A peek beneath the surface reveals that the drive for change and the changes sought are not new, necessary or unique, but in fact familiar — cost cutting, privatization, and restructuring public education around technology. Despite the promises, 21st Century Learning will not bring “success”. The crisis of “factory schooling” is manufactured. And the proposed solution — radical technological transformation — has the potential to damage our schools while diverting public money to corporate profit.

Not surprisingly, technology is almost always identified as a component of 21st Century Learning. But this isn't simply adding new technology to aid in the delivery of curriculum or to allow new teaching methods. It is not a matter of adding a few computer labs or replacing textbooks with eBooks.  In the 21st Century Learning model technology defines the learning methods. It is absolutely backwards - rather than pedagogy defining if and what technologies are used, instead, it is technology driving the choices for learning. As such, it is fundamentally different than the type of technology integration we've seen in the past. It is also, ironically, antithetical to a student-centred or personalized approach because the technology is driving decisions, not student needs.

Whole books have been written on the degree to which technology should or shouldn't be in our schools, but we can consider just a few statistics to get a sense of where 21st Century Learning advocates would like to take us. A paper by CISCO provides a helpful chart documenting what media consumption Dutch teenagers do during an average day.

The question CISCO asks is, "How can traditional modes of classroom instruction engage and inspire students when life outside the classroom has changed so dramatically? In 2007, teens in the United States spent 40 percent of their media time on cell phones, the Internet, and games, up from 16 percent in 1998. For many learners, class is the only time in their day  when they completely ‘disconnect.’”3 Rather than question how much is too much technology, this technology company wonders how we can increase the screen time of teenagers by filling in the one relatively screen free time - school. Meanwhile the Canadian Pediatric Society [and the American Academy of Pediatrics] recommend a two hour screen time limit for children. Significant social issues related to screen time include obesity, mental health and even changing brain chemistry for younger children.

To sell more IT products, the 21st Century Learning advocates create a need for those products. No longer should schools spend their resource and IT budgets only on textbooks and computer labs. Anytime, anywhere, collaborative, integrated, blended learning requires a massive infusion of new IT products.

Considering just one corporate player, Pearson, we see the objectives identified in this report written by Donald Gutstein for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation:

“According to investment research firm Sanford Bernstein & Co., Pearson is pursuing three  growth strategies. First, the company is investing in content and technology to increase its  market share of the education industry. Second, the company is restructuring away from the FT  Group and reinvesting the proceeds into the high-growth areas of emerging markets (Brazil,  India, China, South Africa) and consumer—rather than publicly—financed education. The third  strategy is new, and Bernstein predicts it will ‘revolutionize how education is delivered to  students around the world, starting with the United States.’ It is an ambitious attempt to  further commercialize education by claiming its products and services will raise student and  teacher performance while at the same time cutting spending. If successful, Bernstein argues,  ‘it would make every teacher and school student in the United States a potential customer’ by  ‘personalizing education in U.S. schools through technology and best practices.’”4

Pearson appears to have the US government firmly in its corner with the launch of the ‘Digital Promise’ announced in 2011. Digital Promise, “will work with leading researchers, entrepreneurs, and schools to identify and spur breakthrough learning technologies that deliver the best results for students, parents, and teachers.”5 

Without doubt there is a place for technology in schools and classrooms. It is also likely that new technological developments can provide useful tools to enhance learning. Online and blended models certainly have a place to address issues such as geographic distance and schooling in small communities with few children. 

What is troubling is that rather than a broad discussion about the potential new uses of technology along with the potential risks and pitfalls, the dialogue is one-sided and misleading.  

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You can read the full version of this article here, and read more of Tara Ehrcke's informative blog posts at www.staffroomconfidential.com

For practical help with managing school-based screen-time, see chapters 5 and 11 of my new book on screen-time and mental health: Reset Your Child's Brain

Notes:
1. Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation (2012). “Shifting Minds: A Vision and Framework for 21st Century Learning in Canada” [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/shifting-minds-a-vision-and-fram...

2. Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2012). Retrieved from http://www.p21.org/

3. CISCO (2008). Equiping Every Learner for the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://www.cisco.com/web/about/citizenship/socio-economic/docs/GlobalEdW...

4. Gutstein, Donald (2012). “Pearson’s plan to control education: Report to the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.” Retrieved from http://www.bctf.ca/uploadedFiles/Public/Issues/ Privatization/PearsonGutsteinReport.pdf

5. The White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy (2011). 21st Century Learning: A Digital Promise [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/ blog/2011/09/16/21st-century-learning-digital-promise.

About the Author

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D.

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. is an integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, the author of Reset Your Child's Brain, and an expert on the effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system.  

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