Sunday, July 17, 2011

Technology and Education

For the past several weeks, I have been helping coordinate development of the English curriculum for a new public high school in Brooklyn.  Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) will open in September with cooperation between New York City College of Technology (City Tech--where I teach), the New York City Board of Education and IBM.  The idea is that the school will provide a seamless sequence from ninth grade through attainment of Associates degrees in technology or technology-related fields within six years.  All I've been doing, really, is telling a group of competent educators what the expectations are for students entering our First Year Composition course.  It quickly became clear, as I listened in on their discussions, that they don't need me to tell them what to do (as if I even could), merely to explain what their goals should be from the perspective of one of the students' potential college teachers.

That they can walk things back from there and put together an effective plan was made clear by Rashid Davis, the founding principal of the school and a man with Masters degrees from Columbia, Fordham, and Pace on top of a B.A. from Morehouse College--in addition to seven years as a teacher and eight as an administrator.  Davis and his teachers and staff are clearly able, educated, and dedicated.  It is a pleasure to watch them work as they plan for the opening of school in the fall.

There is a three-pronged approach to education at P-Tech, through Technology, Mathematics, and English.  Though I would like to see more Social Studies in the curriculum, I understand the factors that have led to a more restricted curriculum in the face of contemporary cultural demands for education more directed to jobs than to the grander vision espoused by John Dewey, where education also serves to create citizens.  Fortunately, the English part of the program, as I understand it, will include, in its readings and subsequent discussions and writings, as much as possible to make up for the lack.

One of the things I like about P-Tech is that it moves in directions opposite of the charter-school movement.  Not only is it a public school, but it is really public: As the P-Tech website says, "There are no tests to get in. Students of all abilities will be accepted."  To me, that's really cool, for it indicates that the school accepts the real challenge of education, to bring all students to the levels they can reach.  Too often, we restrict our schools (and colleges) to those who have already gained the tools (generally through family and class backgrounds) for success.  The whole idea of public education is to provide pathways for everyone, not just an elite, no matter how you might define it.

To see a new public school starting up is particularly invigorating in the current climate of compression and diminution of public education.  In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes:
The Center on Education Policy reports that 70 percent of school districts nationwide endured budget cuts in the school year that just ended, and 84 percent anticipate cuts this year.

In higher education, the same drama is unfolding. California’s superb public university system is being undermined by the biggest budget cuts in the state’s history. Tuition is set to rise about 20 percent this year, on top of a 26 percent increase last year, which means that college will become unaffordable for some.

The immediate losers are the students. In the long run, the loser is our country.
Let me amend that: The immediate losers are our children.  In the long run, the losers are all of us.  In other words, this is personal.  For me, to be personally involved (even if just tangentially) in something like P-Tech allows me the optimism to believe that we can turn things around.  P-Tech may not do quite everything I would like, but it is a start in the right direction, and it shows that even a business like IBM can understand the value of trying new things rather than just squeezing into nothing the most successful system of public education ever.

Kristof details what has happened to his own high school, the cutbacks that make the education he received less and less possible.  The bleeding of education affects each of our lives, even if we don't all succeed in the way Kristof has.  We're talking about our children, here.  Only a few can attend the private schools and charter schools.  The vast majority will always have to rely on the broader public-school system.

In his article, Kristof's mentions Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's 2010 book The Race Between Education and Technology.  Though the book may be flawed in that it might seem to place education in too narrow a focus (the authors might wish they, too, had paid a little more attention to Dewey), the point Kristof takes from it is not: mass education is a primary reason for American success over the last century.  If our schools don't seem to be working (and I would disagree with that--I think the whole "failure" meme of public education is both false and fake), then the answer is not to destroy them, as too many seem to want to do these days, but to find ways of improving them.

We have a pool of talented educators, many of them still working in public education (the faculty and staff of P-Tech are not particularly unusual in their skills) and many more who could be attracted back to the profession.  Why don't we use them?  We need to reject this idea that our teachers have destroyed our schools (they have not, and the schools are still quite good) and find ways to support them and the efforts, like P-Tech, they are making to improve our educational institutions in ways that reflect both changing societal demands (and needs) and the realities of educating students for life in a world dominated by technology.

Once, our public schools made us the world-wide leaders in technology.  They can again, but we all have to support them--and that means supporting the professionalism of our teachers (and not always breathing down their necks with things like 'value added' ratings) and supporting adequate funding, even if that means, sometimes, increasing our taxes.  Paying now will produce dividends later, just as it did, as Goldin and Katz demonstrate, throughout the twentieth century.

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