Feature

An Educational Renaissance

by MARVIN J. CETRON


Some time ago, Forecasting International set out to learn how our educational system could better prepare young people for the high-tech world ahead. In a study of 300 school reform programs, we quickly discovered that the most successful programs shared some key elements. Those features will guide school improvements in the next decade. Here are six of the most significant:

  • End of the Edifice Complex

    Think "school" and most of us picture a building. That is what American communities have always thought of. When we needed educational capacity, we built a new building. Add some teachers, textbooks and students willing to learn, and we have all the elements of yesterday's education. But whether it is one room in white clapboard or sprawling ivy-covered halls, a schoolhouse is only an edifice. It represents learning's past, as obsolete as McGuffey's Reader.

    What really makes a school is access to knowledge, and that increasingly means computers, the Internet, closed-circuit TV and all the other technologies that link students with information--tools they will be expected to know how to use when they reach the workplace. The best schools today are fast becoming virtual wired centers of learning, able to tap information anywhere in the world.

    In this new environment, teachers are changing as well. No longer limited to chalkboard lectures, they are becoming facilitators, catalysts and monitors. They no longer try to pour facts into the heads of pupils who need only memorize them. Today's teachers help students master the skills of collecting, evaluating, analyzing and synthesizing information. They provide challenges, always looking for the best the student has to offer.

    By 2010, almost every classroom in the country will be tied to the Internet. In the most distant rural areas, students routinely will attend school by communicating over the Internet through wireless modems. For every student, all the world's information will be no more than a mouse-click away. Because of this, the skills needed by tomorrow's knowledge workers will grow from the day-to-day research that students carry out for their classroom assignments. The edifice complex will be a thing of the past.

  • Alternative Schools: Real Alternatives

    If traditional public schools don't work, one argument goes, maybe we should replace them with something else. So we are setting up magnet schools to provide special courses for talented students, charter schools to experiment with new teaching methods and private schools to supply whatever brand of learning can win the support of devoted parents. Today, one student in four goes to an alternative school. Ten years from now, it could be as many as 40 percent.

    Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush set this agenda when he gave public schools a deadline. Under his administration, failing schools in Texas would have three years to meet educational standards. After that, their funding would go directly to parents, who could use the money to send their children to any school they pleased--public, private or even church-based (so long as public funds did not go directly to support religious instruction). We expect future Democratic candidates to adopt much the same policy (if the teachers' unions who support them will permit it). As a result, the number of alternative schools in this country will explode during the next 10 years.

    However, this probably is not a revolution in the making. True, the best magnet, charter and private schools have raised educational performance, even among students given up by others as poor learners. Yet there is growing evidence that the average alternative school is no more successful than the traditional institution it replaced. Factor in the convenience of sending children to the nearest public school, and parents soon may wonder whether it's worth the bother to send their children elsewhere.

    Economic costs come with alternative schools. Every dollar diverted to them is a dollar lost from traditional public education, which in many areas is strapped for cash already. Alternative schools work only if we can raise extra money for them. In a time of tight budgets, that is not likely to happen.

    Alternative schools are an important part of American education. The best of them provide unique opportunities for learning and develop educational techniques that other schools then can adopt. Yet they are a supplement for traditional schools, not a replacement for them. We will not be surprised if the pendulum swings back toward public education within the coming decade.

  • Ability Grouping: Back to the Future

    Once upon a time schools sorted students according to their perceived ability. Bright students went to advanced classes. Slower learners went to their own less demanding classes. Bright students were not held back by their less capable peers, while lesser talented pupils could learn at their own pace. The majority received at least the chance of an education that would fit them for life on the assembly lines that many of them could expect to inhabit.

    Today, that system has been discredited as being unduly elitist at the one end and stigmatizing at the other. The best learning, modern educational doctrine holds, occurs when everyone studies together, regardless of each person's perceived talent. This way, the most capable students can learn responsibility and cooperation by helping others, while their less advanced classmates are carried forward by their peers.

    Other benefits also accrue. Howard Gardner's multiple-intelligence theory holds that students who perform well in a system that primarily tests verbal and mathematical aptitude will benefit from working with others who understand the world musically, kinesthetically or spatially. Heterogeneous grouping creates a learning environment in which everyone has something to give and to gain.

    Yet this "one for all, all for one" learning suffers from the same problems that inspired segregated classes in the first place. If the class moves slowly enough to let the less capable students keep up, the bright students become bored. If it moves quickly enough to challenge the talented, then slower students cannot keep up. One way or the other, someone loses.

    Thus a new, more sophisticated version of ability grouping is spreading through the nation's classrooms. Students at either end of the spectrum learn pretty much the same material, but the advanced classes go into it at greater depth. Two science classes may learn the basics of geology, for example, but the faster class may get to read John McPhee's Basin and Range while the slower group works to master the text. In the end, everyone will have learned the essentials, something all too few schools can claim today.

  • The End of Social Promotions

    The principle is simple: Students should advance based on their achievement. Social promotion may avoid stigmatizing poor students, but it undermines personal responsibility. It is not fair to students who work to succeed. It is not fair to students who still need to learn, who can only fail when they are sent on unequipped to the next level of instruction. It is not even fair to their future employers, who should be able to assume that a high school diploma represents skills learned, not just time served.

    We are not advocating a sink-or-swim learning system here. Promoting students for achievement means more responsibility for educators and society, not less. To make this work, schools will need full funding for Head Start, so every student reaches school prepared to learn; a full range of high-intensity summer classes, so slower learners can make up time; tutoring for those who need it; remedial classes after hours; bilingual classes and English-as-a-second-language classes to bring foreign-language students up to speed in the only language that can give them full access to American society. Year-round schools, as controversial as they may be, have a strong advantage in this context: They typically recess for three weeks at a time, offering a perfect opportunity to give struggling students extra instruction.

    We can do many things to make sure the end of social promotions does not condemn students to permanent failure. Getting them done is one of the big challenges for the coming decade.

  • High-Tech Voc-Ed: Back to the Future II

    Not everyone goes to college. Not everyone wants to. Not everyone can afford to. In fact, fully half of today's students leave high school and go directly into the workforce. Too few of them have the skills they need to earn a decent living in the modern high-tech economy.

    For many of these students, vocational training would be far more useful than a college preparatory program. Many of them might even learn more of the core academic skills. Good evidence exists that some students learn better when they can see exactly how their classes apply to their lives than they do in the abstract when they are told, "Learn because it's good for you."

    However, we live in a new economy, and students need a new kind of vocational education. Yesterday's vocational programs fitted students for assembly-line industrial work. Those jobs are fast disappearing. Today we need computer programmers and people who can repair computers, medical technicians, anti-pollution workers and a host of other technologically sophisticated specialists. This is the stuff of tomorrow's voc-ed.

    The best high-tech vocational institutions are magnet schools in everything but name. Where other magnet schools offer special opportunities to learn science, art or acting, voc-ed schools build their programs around such practical skills as computer programming and auto repair. In states like Oklahoma, where 21st-century vocational programs already are being pioneered, students taking advanced voc-ed courses receive college credit for them.

    Providing comparable training for students throughout the United States will not be cheap or easy. Modernizing voc-ed means equipping schools with high-tech equipment and finding teachers with the skills to use it. But if we settle for anything less, we fail half of our young people. No country can afford that.

  • Life-Long Learning: Education for Young and Old

    Voc-ed for the young is just the beginning, however. The half-life of an engineer's knowledge today is only five years. In electronics, half of what students learns as freshmen in college is obsolete by their senior year. Almost anyone's job could be obsolete tomorrow, replaced by better computers or some other technology. Most of today's students will pursue no fewer than five different occupations during their working lives. This amounts to a prescription for constant retraining.

    Today, most of that training happens on the job, and it reaches only the lucky few. American employers now spend $42 billion per year on job training. Fully 96 percent of that comes from companies employing more than 300 people. Large employers almost universally regard training as the best investment they can make. However, by 2005, more than 80 percent of Americans will work for companies with fewer than 200 employees; small firms see training as an expense and they provide as little of it as possible. Only our schools can make up the resulting deficit.

    This means still more changes for our nation's school system. Tomorrow's schools will be open well into the evening, so adult learners can prepare for their next careers. In some vocational classes, adults and teens may well study together, mastering technologies that did not exist when the experienced workers last attended school. Local businesses may well help to design classes and provide teachers for them, ensuring that companies get the workers they need and students receive training that can earn them a living.

    Earlier generations saw voc-ed as a dumping ground for slow learners and unruly students. Today it is becoming the education of choice for growing numbers of motivated students in search of practical skills. Tomorrow, it will be a basic part of any school system.

    Optimistic Outlook
    All this sounds very promising. Effective reforms are possible, and we believe they will be accomplished. Thus future students will receive a sound education, suited to the high-technology environment in which they will live and work. After decades of failure, it seems too good to be true.

    Are we being too optimistic? We doubt it. We are not optimists. Neither are we pessimists. We simply go where the data lead us--and in this the data are clear: After long years of experimentation, America's educators have learned how to teach today's students what they need to know. America's voters, the people who must pay for school reforms, now recognize education as the highest priority in our national life. If we are now optimistic about the future of our schools, it is because these facts make us so.

    Marvin Cetron is president of Forecasting International, 3612 Boar Dock Drive, Falls Church, VA 22041. E-mail: marglo@tili.com. Kimberley Cetron teaches in the Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools and is a doctoral candidate in education at George Mason University.
  • End of the Edifice Complex

    Think "school" and most of us picture a building. That is what American communities have always thought of. When we needed educational capacity, we built a new building. Add some teachers, textbooks and students willing to learn, and we have all the elements of yesterday's education. But whether it is one room in white clapboard or sprawling ivy-covered halls, a schoolhouse is only an edifice. It represents learning's past, as obsolete as McGuffey's Reader.

    What really makes a school is access to knowledge, and that increasingly means computers, the Internet, closed-circuit TV and all the other technologies that link students with information--tools they will be expected to know how to use when they reach the workplace. The best schools today are fast becoming virtual wired centers of learning, able to tap information anywhere in the world.

    In this new environment, teachers are changing as well. No longer limited to chalkboard lectures, they are becoming facilitators, catalysts and monitors. They no longer try to pour facts into the heads of pupils who need only memorize them. Today's teachers help students master the skills of collecting, evaluating, analyzing and synthesizing information. They provide challenges, always looking for the best the student has to offer.

    By 2010, almost every classroom in the country will be tied to the Internet. In the most distant rural areas, students routinely will attend school by communicating over the Internet through wireless modems. For every student, all the world's information will be no more than a mouse-click away. Because of this, the skills needed by tomorrow's knowledge workers will grow from the day-to-day research that students carry out for their classroom assignments. The edifice complex will be a thing of the past.

  • Alternative Schools: Real Alternatives

    If traditional public schools don't work, one argument goes, maybe we should replace them with something else. So we are setting up magnet schools to provide special courses for talented students, charter schools to experiment with new teaching methods and private schools to supply whatever brand of learning can win the support of devoted parents. Today, one student in four goes to an alternative school. Ten years from now, it could be as many as 40 percent.

    Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush set this agenda when he gave public schools a deadline. Under his administration, failing schools in Texas would have three years to meet educational standards. After that, their funding would go directly to parents, who could use the money to send their children to any school they pleased--public, private or even church-based (so long as public funds did not go directly to support religious instruction). We expect future Democratic candidates to adopt much the same policy (if the teachers' unions who support them will permit it). As a result, the number of alternative schools in this country will explode during the next 10 years.

    However, this probably is not a revolution in the making. True, the best magnet, charter and private schools have raised educational performance, even among students given up by others as poor learners. Yet there is growing evidence that the average alternative school is no more successful than the traditional institution it replaced. Factor in the convenience of sending children to the nearest public school, and parents soon may wonder whether it's worth the bother to send their children elsewhere.

    Economic costs come with alternative schools. Every dollar diverted to them is a dollar lost from traditional public education, which in many areas is strapped for cash already. Alternative schools work only if we can raise extra money for them. In a time of tight budgets, that is not likely to happen.

    Alternative schools are an important part of American education. The best of them provide unique opportunities for learning and develop educational techniques that other schools then can adopt. Yet they are a supplement for traditional schools, not a replacement for them. We will not be surprised if the pendulum swings back toward public education within the coming decade.

  • Ability Grouping: Back to the Future

    Once upon a time schools sorted students according to their perceived ability. Bright students went to advanced classes. Slower learners went to their own less demanding classes. Bright students were not held back by their less capable peers, while lesser talented pupils could learn at their own pace. The majority received at least the chance of an education that would fit them for life on the assembly lines that many of them could expect to inhabit.

    Today, that system has been discredited as being unduly elitist at the one end and stigmatizing at the other. The best learning, modern educational doctrine holds, occurs when everyone studies together, regardless of each person's perceived talent. This way, the most capable students can learn responsibility and cooperation by helping others, while their less advanced classmates are carried forward by their peers.

    Other benefits also accrue. Howard Gardner's multiple-intelligence theory holds that students who perform well in a system that primarily tests verbal and mathematical aptitude will benefit from working with others who understand the world musically, kinesthetically or spatially. Heterogeneous grouping creates a learning environment in which everyone has something to give and to gain.

    Yet this "one for all, all for one" learning suffers from the same problems that inspired segregated classes in the first place. If the class moves slowly enough to let the less capable students keep up, the bright students become bored. If it moves quickly enough to challenge the talented, then slower students cannot keep up. One way or the other, someone loses.

    Thus a new, more sophisticated version of ability grouping is spreading through the nation's classrooms. Students at either end of the spectrum learn pretty much the same material, but the advanced classes go into it at greater depth. Two science classes may learn the basics of geology, for example, but the faster class may get to read John McPhee's Basin and Range while the slower group works to master the text. In the end, everyone will have learned the essentials, something all too few schools can claim today.

  • The End of Social Promotions

    The principle is simple: Students should advance based on their achievement. Social promotion may avoid stigmatizing poor students, but it undermines personal responsibility. It is not fair to students who work to succeed. It is not fair to students who still need to learn, who can only fail when they are sent on unequipped to the next level of instruction. It is not even fair to their future employers, who should be able to assume that a high school diploma represents skills learned, not just time served.

    We are not advocating a sink-or-swim learning system here. Promoting students for achievement means more responsibility for educators and society, not less. To make this work, schools will need full funding for Head Start, so every student reaches school prepared to learn; a full range of high-intensity summer classes, so slower learners can make up time; tutoring for those who need it; remedial classes after hours; bilingual classes and English-as-a-second-language classes to bring foreign-language students up to speed in the only language that can give them full access to American society. Year-round schools, as controversial as they may be, have a strong advantage in this context: They typically recess for three weeks at a time, offering a perfect opportunity to give struggling students extra instruction.

    We can do many things to make sure the end of social promotions does not condemn students to permanent failure. Getting them done is one of the big challenges for the coming decade.

  • High-Tech Voc-Ed: Back to the Future II

    Not everyone goes to college. Not everyone wants to. Not everyone can afford to. In fact, fully half of today's students leave high school and go directly into the workforce. Too few of them have the skills they need to earn a decent living in the modern high-tech economy.

    For many of these students, vocational training would be far more useful than a college preparatory program. Many of them might even learn more of the core academic skills. Good evidence exists that some students learn better when they can see exactly how their classes apply to their lives than they do in the abstract when they are told, "Learn because it's good for you."

    However, we live in a new economy, and students need a new kind of vocational education. Yesterday's vocational programs fitted students for assembly-line industrial work. Those jobs are fast disappearing. Today we need computer programmers and people who can repair computers, medical technicians, anti-pollution workers and a host of other technologically sophisticated specialists. This is the stuff of tomorrow's voc-ed.

    The best high-tech vocational institutions are magnet schools in everything but name. Where other magnet schools offer special opportunities to learn science, art or acting, voc-ed schools build their programs around such practical skills as computer programming and auto repair. In states like Oklahoma, where 21st-century vocational programs already are being pioneered, students taking advanced voc-ed courses receive college credit for them.

    Providing comparable training for students throughout the United States will not be cheap or easy. Modernizing voc-ed means equipping schools with high-tech equipment and finding teachers with the skills to use it. But if we settle for anything less, we fail half of our young people. No country can afford that.

  • Life-Long Learning: Education for Young and Old

    Voc-ed for the young is just the beginning, however. The half-life of an engineer's knowledge today is only five years. In electronics, half of what students learns as freshmen in college is obsolete by their senior year. Almost anyone's job could be obsolete tomorrow, replaced by better computers or some other technology. Most of today's students will pursue no fewer than five different occupations during their working lives. This amounts to a prescription for constant retraining.

    Today, most of that training happens on the job, and it reaches only the lucky few. American employers now spend $42 billion per year on job training. Fully 96 percent of that comes from companies employing more than 300 people. Large employers almost universally regard training as the best investment they can make. However, by 2005, more than 80 percent of Americans will work for companies with fewer than 200 employees; small firms see training as an expense and they provide as little of it as possible. Only our schools can make up the resulting deficit.

    This means still more changes for our nation's school system. Tomorrow's schools will be open well into the evening, so adult learners can prepare for their next careers. In some vocational classes, adults and teens may well study together, mastering technologies that did not exist when the experienced workers last attended school. Local businesses may well help to design classes and provide teachers for them, ensuring that companies get the workers they need and students receive training that can earn them a living.

    Earlier generations saw voc-ed as a dumping ground for slow learners and unruly students. Today it is becoming the education of choice for growing numbers of motivated students in search of practical skills. Tomorrow, it will be a basic part of any school system.

    Optimistic Outlook
    All this sounds very promising. Effective reforms are possible, and we believe they will be accomplished. Thus future students will receive a sound education, suited to the high-technology environment in which they will live and work. After decades of failure, it seems too good to be true.

    Are we being too optimistic? We doubt it. We are not optimists. Neither are we pessimists. We simply go where the data lead us--and in this the data are clear: After long years of experimentation, America's educators have learned how to teach today's students what they need to know. America's voters, the people who must pay for school reforms, now recognize education as the highest priority in our national life. If we are now optimistic about the future of our schools, it is because these facts make us so.

    Marvin Cetron is president of Forecasting International, 3612 Boar Dock Drive, Falls Church, VA 22041. E-mail: marglo@tili.com. Kimberley Cetron teaches in the Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools and is a doctoral candidate in education at George Mason University.
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