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Working on the American Dream

A paradox lies at the heart of problems in American education. We hear on every hand that the system is in crisis. This is surely true. Yet our major universities are the envy of the world. America has long made a more profound commitment to democratic education than any other nation in history. Both the land grant colleges and the private universities testify to this. Especially in areas of science and technology, American researchers are unequaled for productivity and creativity. There are authentic virtues in the American system that are unparalleled. But our school children perform on tests no better than do those in the third world and uniformly less well than do the students of the other developed nations. We need to understand better what makes for powerful minds. We need to do better for more of our young people what we do very well for a few.

A Framework with a Few Suggestions

With the availability of new technologies that promise to change the everyday world, it is tempting to ask how we can exploit that technology to its fullest extent. This leads all too easily to expertise oriented proposals for Federal support. It is not appropriate, in a time of financial uncertainty and educational crisis, to let a technology dominated view apportion limited resources for intervention. We need to focus on nationally important issues, asking what ends will be advanced by research. Still, it is wise to work from strength, applying our best ideas to our most profound and pressing problems. Given the open borders of western nations to the flow of people, ideas, and products, we need to consider both domestic and transnational dimensions of any initiatives, as well as what is needed and what may be possible. Going beyond exploiting technology, let me suggest three arenas in which the Federal government might fulfill its purpose of promoting the common good.

Competing with Other Producers

As a nation, we compete for various market shares with others in the world. Our children do not perform so well on tests as those of schools in other developed nations. Our technical graduate schools, university faculty, and laboratories have a high number of immigrant engineers and scientists. Will more trained, skilled workers flock to these shores when today's debts become tomorrow's taxes ? While grateful to these American latecomers who help us compete on a global scale, we still must ask how it could be that our society and educational system render so many of our native born children uninterested in technical mastery of the intellectual world or unfit to achieve it. Such fears, questions, and the need to compete have long supported federal investment in science and math education. Federal support -- whether from civilian or military sources - has led to much of the work that is best in cognitive science and educational engineering. Theoretical issues, such as the context dependency of knowledge or the organization and reorganization of knowledge in individual minds, are central to addressing economics related issues of training for future jobs. The cognitive sciences offer promise here. The challenge is one which they better address than can theories of any other discipline. Such work should be continued and exploited as we begin to confront the employment crises of tomorrow.

Social Needs

Polyglot Education:

The School systems of California and Florida are staggering under the influx of Spanish language students. Some cities of these states are becoming dominated by what many Americans would consider an alien culture, falling prey, as it were, to uncontrollable immigration and the revenge of the cradle. It is clear that the assimilation of these Spanish speaking children, these future citizens, into the American system is an inescapable challenge. This suggests policy focus on ways in which technology can influence bi-lingual and multi-cultural education. There is promise for bilingual use of computer-based microworlds with young children [1]. The social objective of such computer experiences would be to give children native to either language the opportunity to learn reading and writing in the native tongue then to contrast their native language with that used by their playmates in comparable activities. Providing funding to develop, explore, and exploit such educational resources with Headstart and primary school children would be a way immediately to address a significant social problem. Such research would have both significant practical and theoretical dimensions. These experiences surely would not harm the children and could be of significant value to them and the society as a whole.

Minority Teachers for Tomorrow

The pool of young minority teachers is evaporating [2]. In the state of Michigan there are only 11 certified black male teachers age 26 or younger. There are four times as many black females of that age. There are sixty or so young black teachers among a total educator population of more than 100,000 in the state. While black males comprise 2.5% of that total, and blacks of both gender comprise 8-9% of the total, most of the black teachers are aged 40 to 50 years. The large numbers of talented blacks being admitted to Michigan University (both male and female) are now choosing to enter careers in business and engineering instead of teaching and nursing -- traditional paths of opportunity in the past. Today's enhanced opportunity for individuals may be creating a catastrophe for tomorrow's education system. Should these observations prove representative of national trends, alternative inducements will needed to attract talented minority teachers back into schools. Financial incentives could be important in a time of increasing higher education costs. Graduate assistants in education schools make very little. When both their small income and tuition remission are taxed, very few are making a living wage. When they become teachers, they will not make very much either. An expansion of education loans specifically for teacher preparation -- with later loan forgiveness based on later service in minority schools -- might be a significant attractor. Trying to enhance the status of the job by providing both training with and access to state of the art educational technology is a second obvious possibility.

Mother Hens for Headstart

Project research reports suggest that Headstart helpers (adults who help the center director in care of the children) get at least as much out of new experiences with computer technology as do the children. These helpers typically have minimal job skills and minimal education. They are employed at minimum wages. Whenever they develop enough skill and a record of regular employment, they leave Headstart centers for other jobs (the next step in their "Career path" is typically a trainee position at McDonalds). If these people are good for the children they work with, could we not provide a real "Career path" for them of a suitable sort ? Headstart works; it provides cognitive gains for disadvantaged children. However, when the children enter the regular school system, their relative advantage dissipates as they pass through later grades. Imagine the Headstart helpers as mother hens with a brood and consider this idealized scenario. Let's suppose the children have Headstart programs extended and augmented as they move into primary grades. As the mother hen moves through the grades with her brood, they are all promoted (but she gets a raise). The mother hen is not only is a helper to teachers, she provides a kind of personal continuity rare in education. She becomes a student again herself, better able to learn the second time while helping her brood.

Such a program, if well worked out, might help preserve into later years the gains typical of Headstart experience. They would help some marginally employable people work their way out of the underclass and would also provide a small cushion against the impending crash in the population of young minority teachers. I believe currently available, older computers, with currently producible software, could help make such a program work.


Experimental Future Schools

Regular institutional structures are necessary for enduring change. The country needs experimental schools, and more than a handful. As the primary agents responsible for education, state governments are in the position to make meaningful, practical experiments for future schooling. Several already do so and seek the best direction they can get. Each state should be encouraged, and even supported, in attempts to articulate its unique vision of the education appropriate for its people and to implement that vision in a model school. Each could, nonetheless profit from contrasting and comparing its best future vision with the others of the union. One Federal role in planning for the future of education could be essentially hortatory and facilitative, urging all the states to develop plans for model schools and using the Federal structure and contacts to make relevant connection between different projects and advisors who might be of some particular use.

Moving from studies to action is essential. It is also the point where a judicious use of Federal matching grants could make a difference between plans being forgotten or experiments undertaken. Some states might not have sufficient resources, especially in hard times. But the experiments done in any state would be of value to the others for comparison and contrast, especially when one considers the mix of urban, suburban , and rural schools found in all states.

Problems and Opportunities

Can we look through our problems to see new opportunities ? If we are developing a need for more extensive bilingual and bicultural education, and if we have an existing national infrastructure for education, can we not proceed with our development of new material for learners which will:
- highlight the most effective and useful ideas of modern society
- segregate the intellectual core of ideas from culture and language specific materials
- embody the ideas in computer-based microworlds:
* whose appearance or graphical interface can be altered for different cultural contexts
* whose surface language can be modified by an experience teacher-user for use by pupils of different natural languages
We can. (See the included materials on Computers and the World Cultures and the article from the UNESCO Courier.) I hold out the prospect of a global curriculum, based on the best abstract ideas of our modern civilization, but embodied in concrete forms adapted for the different and various cultures of the world. If we can better understand how to help build powerful minds, the American educational system as a whole may better approach the standard of excellence its outstanding members achieve. Our existing educational infrastructure can help us develop an intellectual core for a global curriculum. This could lead to software and instructional products, embodying our best understanding of the world but designed for cultural adaptation. More importantly, as we improve the education of our society's children, we can help educate the world's children as well as our own. This may be one way where America can both earn a leadership role and enhance international understanding without undercutting cultural diversity.

Acknowledgement: this paradox was called to my attenttion by Seymour Papert in a telephone conversation.

Publication notes:

Text notes:

  1. See the enclosed notes on computer based microworlds. Consider also viewing the Headstart videotape "Computers in the Classroom", (produced by the Institute for Child Study at the University of Maryland) for examples of children using such microworlds
  2. This discussion is based on a personal conversation with Carl Berger, Dean of the Education School at Michigan University. Carl brought these problems to the attention of fellow Deans in a recent meeting because they were so unexpected. The observations are based on a study done by Eugene Cain, assistant state school superintendent, and C. Danford Austin, Director of Teacher Preparation. The information is published in two articles in two newspapers: Ann Arbor News (10/26/87) and Detroit Free Press (10/27/87).

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