Published: June 1, 2012 7:06 PM
It’s time for the next big thing in education, a true revolution in our approach to high school teaching and learning. The vision comes courtesy of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which announced plans last month to offer free online college classes.
These prestigious universities are providing a stamp of approval for this use of technology, by joining other institutions in deeming interactive online courses an effective way to advance education — without requiring regularly scheduled meetings of instructors and students. This should trigger a long overdue overhaul in the way high school students are taught.
Nearly 30 years ago the Carnegie report, “A Nation at Risk,” warned that American education is failing our country. And during the decades since, public K-12 education has tried, largely unsuccessfully, to respond. If anything, the criticisms have increased over the past 10 years, as more and more money has been poured into public education, while international comparisons have pointed to an accelerating decline in American student success.
The traditional, antiquated model — 25 to 35 students sitting in tidy rows with a single teacher in the front of the classroom — now can and should be replaced by a blend of interactive online education and face-to-face teacher-student interactions focused upon a motivating curriculum. The timing for this change could not be better; the national common core standards in English and mathematics have been agreed upon as a goal by almost all states, including New York.
You would’ve thought that the technological revolution that has changed the world of business and entertainment would have already had a greater impact on schools. But so far its impact has largely been limited to providing Advanced Placement courses in smaller, rural communities; computer labs; and the occasional incorporation of laptops into individual classrooms. The most frequent use of classroom technology has been in the area of assessments. While these are all worthy uses of technology, we can and should do a lot more.
The substantial costs of K-12 public education and the concern that America’s students aren’t sufficiently competitive with those in other developed nations have resulted in a search for alternatives. Yet two of the most popular ideas — charter schools and using public money to support increased enrollment at private schools, through voucher programs — threaten public education itself. What’s more, neither alternative has yet shown consistent improvements in student learning, nor an ability to be implemented on a large scale.
For student learning to improve on a broad basis, it will take changes in instructional methods, not organizational changes. It is what occurs in the classroom that truly matters. This is why we must bring the latest thinking about online education into the public school classroom in a large-scale way.
We know that most teenagers are technologically adept — they are primed for this sort of change in learning. We also know that we have an inadequate supply of competent math and science teachers, and that the increasing teacher salaries over the past two decades have not had a significant impact on teacher quality.
So here’s one vision for the future. Many high school courses could combine online technology lessons and teacher-directed lessons, with each format occurring on alternating days. The “class size” for the technology directed lesson is theoretically unlimited — each student will have his or her personal laptop. Assessments would be frequent and individualized, with students and class reports generated daily and given to the teachers who meet with traditionally sized classes of students on the alternate day.
Teachers would review and highlight the curricular goals detailed by the assessment reports. As important as following up on students’ academic needs, teachers will provide human contact for students of both an academic and personal nature, something online educational programs can never do.
The best candidate for a first course to be developed this way is algebra. Almost all eighth or ninth graders across the country take it, since algebra is seen as the gateway to all advanced mathematics.
With the implementation of national math standards, most high school algebra courses will look very much the same, no matter where in the country they are offered. This single course, then, has a market of hundreds of thousands of students — a size that should mean the very best teachers and technologists could be well paid to create a super course. Its one-time development cost could be paid by the federal government, a foundation or the private sector — a small investment in America’s future.
Real money can be saved through this blend of interactive online and face-to-face education. The alternate-day online course can be organized into much larger class sizes than the current average, and can be supervised by a teaching assistant earning a third or a half of a teacher’s salary. The face-to-face class, led by a teacher, could remain at the current average.
This technological revolution must come to public education if America’s children are to be competitive in the global economy. Spending on testing and alternative structures is not the answer — it’s addressing what occurs in the classroom. Our students are ready to embrace interactive online learning, as long as they don’t lose the crucial human element that can be provided by excellent teachers. A revolution spirited by top universities intending to change the way adults learn may well have its greatest impact on America’s high schools.
Marc F. Bernstein is former superintendent of Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District and Valley Stream Central High School District.