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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cracking An Educating Impasse

By Elizabeth Corcoran 10.28.09, 12:01 AM EDT

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.--In 2005, Bronx middle school IS 339 was a wreck. A slim 9% of the students could do math at their grade level. Classes were regularly locked down to dampen conflicts. Ambulances and police cars frequently vied for parking spots with school buses.

Four years later, IS 339 is a very different school from the one principal Jason Levy inherited several years earlier: 62% of the students are at grade level in math now. Teachers share lesson plans with one another and are inspiring students to take on complex challenges, including interviewing city planners about what it would take to create something like Times Square in the Bronx.

What did Levy do?

Turning around IS 339 took tremendous--and in some instances, radical--efforts that included changing more than half the teaching staff. From Levy's vantage, however, he couldn't have done it without an infusion of technology--including giving laptops to every student and training teachers to use Google docs to share lesson plans, put out assignments and stay in touch with their students. ''We don't see laptops as toys or tools but as megaphones,'' Levy said. ''The internet is just another language that we need to speak.''

Levy shared his story at a day-and-half conference, ''Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age,'' hosted at Google's headquarters and sponsored by a trio of organizations long involved in education: the MacArthur Foundation, Joan Gantz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the San Francisco-based Common Sense Media organization. Questions were also moderated online. ''We have the leaders of industry, education and philanthropy in the room. This is our moment,'' declared James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media.

The undercurrent of the meeting: The Internet has changed most of the business world and lives--but for the most part, it hasn't touched public education. That means the chasm between what students experience in and outside the classroom is widening--so much so that 1.2 million teenagers quit school every year, a rate that translates to one kid dropping out every 26 seconds.

Apart from agreeing that education is fraught with problems, educators have long argued about where to start: Improve teacher pay? Get rid of tenure? Get rid of school boards? Add more standards or set schools and teachers free to experiment with novel teaching techniques? Add computers? Get the parents more involved?

Even as policymakers, educators and philanthropists debated the different approaches, a handful of speakers shared inspiring stories about individual projects that are working, much like Levy's school in the Bronx. A number are bubbling up in New York City: Geoff Canada, who runs the Harlem Children's Zone, described how his project offers educational, social and medical services to thousands of children--and has turned out nationally ranked teams of chess champions. There are plans to try to build similar projects elsewhere around the U.S. Last summer, New York also sponsored a unique experiment called School of One (see "Tools For Learning") that used computers to create personalized learning programs for individual students. Test scores jumped; New York hopes to expand that program too.

In Chicago, Nichole Pinkart, who founded the Digital Youth Network, described how her team has created a space where urban kids can experiment with digital media tools as well as become experts in constructing multimedia projects that tie into school curriculum.

And in Maine, Susan Gendron, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, discussed how all middle school students in her state are given laptops. The students ''are networking and doing research all over the world,'' Gendron said. ''The ways they're presenting what they learn is much like how people present information in companies every day.''

There were also hints of projects to come: Slated for released in 2010 is Waiting For Superman, a movie that lays out the heartbreaking frustration of bright, economically disadvantaged kids struggling to get a good education. The film is produced by Internet executive Jeff Skoll's movie production company, which also sponsored An Inconvenient Truth. Former chief of Lotus Development Corp., Mitch Kapor, who now runs the Level Playing Field Institute in San Francisco, suggested that he's seen prototypes of a new class of low-cost, handheld devices like netbook computers that will debut in 2010.
Yet as educators and teachers shared their stories, one thread ran through many of the comments: In spite of the spread of Internet technology, few teachers, administrators or even parents have found easy ways to share the technologies and best teaching practices that have worked in classrooms. ''I'm a little unhappy because we're not addressing the issue of how you scale what kids need,'' said Mike S. Smith, a senior counsel at the U.S. Department of Education.

Twenty years ago, when the National Writing Project began offering teachers workshops on how to teach writing, ''we'd see innovations in teaching practices that would spread,'' noted Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, who directs national programs and site development for the NWP. ''I'd say in the last 10 years, it has been harder to do that.''

Exactly how to get the best ideas to spread hasn't been worked out yet. But the need has never been stronger. ''In every other sector, technology has been an essential part of how to do more with less,'' noted James H. Shelton III, an assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. ''Pressure, relentlessly applied, causes change.''

Elizabeth Corcoran was an editor and writer for Forbes for 10 years. She left recently to create a start-up devoted to sharing best practices for technology in education.

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