Overblown alarmism and empty rhetoric

[cross-posted at the TechLearning blog]

[Law students learn to argue both sides of any issue because as attorneys
they may be hired for either side of a case. Knowledge of the other side’s
arguments also allows attorneys to counter those arguments and thus strengthen
their own side. So with that in mind, here’s a little contrarian perspective on
School 2.0. As technology advocates, we must be able to offer real solutions,
not just empty rhetoric.

Dear School 2.0 advocates,

We’ve heard it all before. The sky is falling.
America is in danger of losing its role as lead actor on the global stage. What
else is new?

National commissions? Esteemed task forces? Corporate leaders as education
critics? We’ll see your Bill Gates and raise you a Sputnik.

We heard it in the 1950s:

We are engaged in a grim duel. We are beginning to recognize the threat
to American technical supremacy which could materialize if Russia succeeds in
her ambitious program of achieving world scientific and engineering supremacy by
turning out vast numbers of well-trained scientists and engineers. . . We have
let our educational problem grow much too big for comfort and safety. We are
beginning to see now that we must solve it without delay.
– Admiral Hyman
Rickover, 1959

We heard it in the 1980s:

The risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently
than Americans and have government subsidies for development and export. It is
not just that the South Koreans recently built the world’s most efficient steel
mill, or that American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being
displaced by German products. It is also that these developments signify a
redistribution of trained capability throughout the globe. . . If only to keep
and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we
must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit
of all–old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning
is the indispensable investment required for success in the "information age" we
are entering.
Nation at Risk, 1983

We heard it in the 1990s:

America’s education system is broken.IBM
CEO Louis Gerstner, 1994

And we’re hearing it again today:

Whereas for most of the 20th century the United States could take pride
in having the best-educated workforce in the world, that is no longer true. Over
the past 30 years, one country after another has surpassed us. . . . While our
international counterparts are increasingly getting more education, their young
people are getting a better education as well. . . . Our relative position in
the world’s education league tables [continues] its long slow decline.
The New Commission on the
Skills of the American Workforce, 2006

America’s high schools are obsolete.Microsoft CEO Bill Gates,

And yet, somehow, despite our educational system’s long history of alleged
mediocrity, our country and our economy keep chugging along quite nicely. Our standard
of living
is the envy of most of the world. Our gross
domestic product per capita
literally dwarfs those of China or India, the
latest international competition du jour. Despite our country’s
creativity-stifling schools, our citizens and workers continue, quite
astonishingly, to build upon our nation’s well recognized and long-standing
traditions of innovation and excellence to create new products, new systems, and
new markets.

We’ve heard it all before. Creative thinking.
Problem solving. Independent, self-directed learning. Daniel Pink, Richard
Florida, John Seely Brown…

Ho hum. Ever heard of progressive education? The turn of the LAST century?
Summerhill? John Dewey? Neil Postman? The 1960s? Been there, done that. Why is
THIS time any different? Why is it that THIS time we should replace the entire

Yes, we get it. Most kids think schools are boring. Big surprise. John
told us that long ago. As if we needed ANYONE to tell us that. Isn’t
that just the way school is?

Fine. School 2.0 is the “right” thing to do. Technology has the potential to
transform education. Our educational institutions could be doing so much more.
Educators should feel more of a moral imperative to do things differently. Blah
blah blah… Let’s be honest: isn’t this true for ANY bureaucratic government
entity? Do we really expect our public schools to be any different?

We’ve heard it all before. The status quo is
inadequate. Too many kids drop out, our assessment systems are all wrong, and
we’re squandering our children’s future. The problem is that you offer no
concrete, tangible, publicly- and politically-viable alternatives.

It’s easy to throw stones at glass houses. It’s much harder to replace a
venerable system that’s served us well for a century with something else. The
old saw, “Never make a complaint without offering potential solutions” applies
here in spades. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say that we “tore down the
walls” tomorrow. What would education look like instead? How would we ever get
there from where we are now? How are you going to persuade educators, and
politicians, and your local community members that this is worth moving toward?
That it’s not just pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking?

What’s your plan? We mean a real plan. Not just “kids learning
independently on matters of personal interest, taking advantage of the power of
digital technology to help them do so.
” What will the structures look like?
Policies? Laws? Funding streams? How will we know if kids have learned anything
important? How will we handle parents’ very real needs for someone to take their
kids while they go to work?

Quit offering us wishes. Quit offering us dreams. Quit preaching to us about
what is morally right and educationally appropriate. Help us realize, in terms
we can understand, what this new thing might actually look like AT SCALE and how
we might reasonably get here. Even if we agree with you that this is important,
without a vision AND a plan we’re just as stuck as you are.

We’ve heard it all before. What else you got?

7 Responses to “Overblown alarmism and empty rhetoric”

  1. Arnold Kriegbaum Reply March 14, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    Does an educational improvement only count when it is “at scale” ?

    The kids in the Milwaukee charter are probably happy with the improved option they now have, but that doesn’t mean that their solution will replicate easily.

  2. I have been waiting for this post, or something like it, for some time now. We have all been thinking this, and some have even expressed it in other terms, but this hits it squarely. This is the echo chamber where it all sounds dreamy. What is real, however, is that this is not a new phenomenon: education is always the whipping boy for both big industry and big government.

    What I do appreciate about this idea of school reform we call School 2.0, is that it is coming from educators, not government. We rail against the constraints of NCLB and still push towards integrating these ideas and changes. No one from a state office is telling me to use a wiki, a blog, or a podcast. I am choosing to do that because I think it promotes legitimate learning.

    You are correct, we need big solutions if we succumb to the idea that this problem is as severe as corporate giants tell us it is. However, I think that the impetus for change is coming from the right side of the equation for once: the schools themselves.

  3. Unlike Patrick, I think we need little solutions. Solutions that flow from the little people–like you and me–and not anyone else. It’s time to reshape education, not in the image of the way things should be, but the way things are. That alignment of education to the real world…that’s what’s needed.

    All that other stuff that’s mentioned in your great post, well, let’s leave that to the big people. They like to worry about garbage like that.



  4. I agree that a lot of what we’re talking about with web 2.0 goes back to progressive education, that’s what makes it good an worthwhile. But I also think it take progressive ideas in education to the next level. I did a hokey little slide show on journaling to show this…


    I think there is a lot of alarmism, but I teach some of the poorer students in this country (and I always have). These are the students who are more likely to drop out, these are the students that don’t always succeed, and while our overall economy is doing well, these people are not (income inequality, anyone?). I don’t think education will do it all, but it can do something about this.

    Thank your for the soapbox.

  5. Schools can make small changes that will create big ripples later on. It starts at the top with a commitment to allow time for teacher education. A savvy staff can work its way around slow government policy making them “dangerously irrelevant.”
    (sorry, had too.)


  6. Sigh, it would be nice to work around slow government policy, but look at the discussion about how we teach technology. The requirements for filtering are affecting how we teach and what tools we use. How many hoops do we jump through because of filtering? I have my students work on the Internet rather directly, but many of my peers I’m meeting on the web cannot share their students work with me because there students need to be “walled-off”, so I can’t see what their work is like. It is interupting my ability to collaborate and develop my teaching.

    Scott, I’m starting to see posts from folks not wanting to get political. I know I’m much more willing than my peers to get in the fray because of my background and union membership, but am I swimming against the tide here?

  7. You figured this out in your two years of subbing?

    You know what you should do? Steal a PowerPoint about this.

    Are you crazy, Agent?

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