The US education system didn't get any thanks at our table this year

It wasn't so long ago that many students and parents considered themselves lucky to have access to public education in the States. I'm afraid, though, that I'm headed into 2013 utterly discouraged by the system.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Thanksgiving Day was rather nice in the Dawson household this year. Local mead and cranberry wine flowed freely. I dispensed with cooking this year and saved myself the stress by just reheating an awesome meal from whole foods. My medicine cabinet was stalked with plenty of Zantac. The kids even sat briefly at the table and my 17-year old happily did some craft project involving leaves and glue that his mom dreamed up with his 3-year old sister. Oh yeah, and our area had been spared the worst of Hurricane Sandy, we were safe and warm, and did I mention there was plenty of wine?

The day before, though, was tougher. I spent a couple of hours helping one of my kids (currently a freshman in college) with his algebra homework. I'd love to say that we were working through advanced linear algebra concepts or some challenging combinatorics. Instead, though, this was homework for his remedial algebra class, designed to help students make up the difference between what they learned in high school and what they need for college. His school offers several sections of this course and they are always full.

A bit of conversation with his older brother (now a junior at another college) revealed that the same situation existed at his school.

Kid #3 (17 and a senior at our local, highly-ranked tech school) was struggling with work for an internship. The work should have been child's play for someone in their fourth year of an information technology program at a modern technical high school.

What was wrong with this picture? All three of them had passed their state standardized tests with at least reasonable marks and kid #3's technical assessments were solid. Most of my college kids' peers had passed the same tests. Massachusetts has some of the most rigorous standardized tests in the nation; they are required for graduation and, in theory, are designed to demonstrate competence in state standards, which, in turn, are alligned with college readiness. Passing the tests should mean that there simply isn't a need for remedial mathematics education when they hit college.

Maybe they won't be ready for college-level calculus or even a statistics and probability course, but they shouldn't need to work on finding the roots of quadratic equations or be introduced to rational expressions. If they haven't mastered these concepts in high school, they shouldn't pass the state exams and appropriate safety nets should be in place to make sure that remediation happens long before they hit post-secondary education. This isn't rocket science. It's sound education to which administrators, politicians, and school boards pay lip service every day.

If everything is working as it should, state colleges and universities should be able to eliminate these remedial courses. If they exist, they certainly shouldn't be filled up with students who have already met state competency requirements in high school. And yet, not just in Massachusetts, but across the country, college students enroll in remedial math and language classes every semester of every year.

Which means that the system has failed. This isn't even saying anything about students who drop out or don't go on to post-secondary education. I'm only talking about the students who have "made it"...the kids who didn't just graduate from high school but actually went to college.

Please don't think this diminishes the work of the many great teachers and high-performing schools out there that have made hard choices, drastic changes, bucked the system, and are doing wonderful work. For these islands of outstanding work, I'm absolutely thankful. What I'm not thankful for is utter lack of preparedness, both for the "real world" and for college-level coursework that far too many of our students display. There is no better evidence for this critical problem than the presence of several sections of remedial math and English that can be found in course catalogs from colleges and universities around the country.

In large part, this is just a blog about education. We're just around the corner from 2013 and it pains me how little progress we've made towards really improving educational and vocational outcomes for students. In part though, this is yet another place where ed tech can make a real difference without imposing any hardship on overextended teachers and schools.

  • Adaptive learning technology is mature and ready for prime time. Whether in a lab or through 1:1 programs, software already exists (and good frameworks exist for extending the technology across the curriculum) that provides real-time data to teachers, helps reinforce scaffolding for students, and manages remediation on the fly.
  • Our ability to analyze, understand, and act on data is growing at an extraordinary pace. There is no reason for us not to build meaningful, deep educational profiles on our students and use these to design "IEPs for everyone" in a largely automated fashion.
  • Digital portfolios and outcomes-based education must replace standardized tests which are obviously failing to pick out students who are not prepared for college and career. Adobe Acrobat, PathBrite, and many other tools allow for students and teachers to easily assemble and reflect upon a variety of work and, again, form a much better picture of a student's performance than yearly, high-stakes, summative assessments.
  • If I hear about one more kid who "just couldn't find any information about [fill in topic here] on the Internet", I'm going to blow a gasket. Our students should be experts on information retrieval, evaluation, analysis, and synthesis. There is no reason why students should ever answer "I don't know" to a question and they need to be given opportunities to develop and hone these skills across curricula for their entire educational careers.

All of this requires system change on a massive scale, though. The technology is ready...Are your schools? Because we don't really have time to wait.

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