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Now is the time to improve classroom education, panelists say
Improving education for the 21st century will depend on setting higher standards for schools, giving greater respect to good teachers and getting businesses involved in offering students incentives to learn, panelists told the audience at a centennial roundtable, "Moving the 21st Century into the Classroom."
The discussion on Monday, Sept. 30, was led by Derek Bok, a fellow at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and president emeritus of Harvard University.
The participants were Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, nationally recognized for leading improvements in his state's education programs; James F. Gibbons, dean of Stanford's School of Engineering; Sam L. Ginn, chairman and chief executive officer of Pacific Telesis Group and chair of the education task force of the California Business Roundtable; Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction; Apple Computer fellow Alan C. Kay, who has worked with schoolchildren on computer- development projects since he developed the Macintosh; LaVoneia C. Steele, superintendent of the 8,000-student Berkeley Unified School District; Marshall S. Smith, dean of Stanford's School of Education; Lester C. Thurow, dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management; and Yori Wada, a regent of the University of California and a leader in public service directed toward youth and Asian Americans.
Bok opened the discussion with a startling new estimate: One million new teachers will be needed over the next 10 years. "Where will they come from?" he asked.
"You get what you pay for," Honig answered. He said America can no longer rely on discrimination to keep talented women and minorities out of other alluring jobs. "Other nations pay their teachers at the top of the scale for professionals," he said.
"Money alone will not do it," added Steele. She reminded the audience that teachers once had high respect in American communities. Government, business and parents have to find ways to give recognition again to those who do their teaching well.
The panelists agreed with Bok that teacher training has long concentrated too much on pedagogy and not enough on content.
"That is the heart of the problem," Smith said. "I'm pessimistic about how much it can change." Part of the problem with training teachers, he added, is that there is no agreement on what to train them for -- curriculum varies so widely across the country.
"California is due for a new kind of education of its teachers. We could use teachers who don't come out of schools of education," Wada said to applause. He suggested using graduates who know their subject matter, are able to get it across with enthusiasm, and can relate to the diverse cultures in the classroom.
"We may not have time to find solutions to teacher training," Gibbons said. "If we can't make significant changes in the next decade, it may be too late" in terms of preparing workers for international competition. He proposed in-service training for today's teachers.
Gibbons is the inventor of a tutored video instruction technique that has been used for 20 years to train engineers and is now used to boost science and math training for elementary school teachers.
Though he is sometimes called the "father of the personal computer," Kay warned against glibly assuming that technology is the solution to better classroom education. It doesn't improve music education to put a piano in every classroom: "The music is not in the piano."
"Technology can amplify or atrophy the natural abilities students bring into the classroom," Kay said. As long as teachers are considered "containers of knowledge fluid, to be transferred drop by drop from the full teacher vessel to the empty student vessel," nothing will change. He proposed instead the model of "teacher as coach" and learning the subject matter as a team effort, in which students help one another.
Steele said Berkeley is working with such an idea, a "star training" technique, where teachers help each other to treat children for whom they have low expectations with the same careful attention and concentrated response time that they give to those they expect to succeed.
"Many of us do not truly believe we can teach all children and they can learn," Steele said, in spite of many demonstrations that a teacher's high expectations can raise the level of performance.
As head of California's largest private employer, Ginn got involved in education after he learned that six out of 10 young people who take Bell's entry exam flunk. The California Business Roundtable is working with the state on education reform, Ginn said, "because we have no choice. Without improvement in education, our entire standard of living will decrease."
Thurow agreed that this issue -- the training of the American work force to compete for skilled jobs -- is where American business has been cowardly. "They don't tell schools, 'Your product is unacceptable. If you don't improve, we're moving to Singapore.' " Instead of taking on the politically difficult task of helping improve the schools, U.S. firms simply look elsewhere for skilled labor.
But Ginn and Honig said that partnerships where businesses will provide incentives for young people to do well in school are starting up. The Business Roundtable and a California education task force are both proposing variations on a two-track option available to students in the 10th grade: college preparation, or an apprenticeship in business, with the promise of a job upon graduation.
The Business Roundtable plan also calls for a focus on the output of schools rather than the input (expenditure per student). It aims to get away from mandates and let teachers use creativity to meet standards; to make students accountable for their performance; to offer preschool at age 4; to certify teachers and pay them as professionals; to get technology into the classroom; and to get parents involved in students' performance.
In Arkansas, Clinton said, the state has enacted a program similar in almost every point to the one proposed for California. One response: overwhelming support for taxes to support the schools. His state's taxpayers, he said, "were willing to pay for specific results."
Arkansas was the second state, after Minnesota, to mandate a controversial plan also proposed for California: giving parents a choice of moving their children out of poor-quality public schools.
Bok asked about the hope of free choice in school enrollment -- that competition among schools would raise the quality of all. "Is that really going to happen?" he asked. "What about the schools that are left behind? Won't the predicament of those students and teachers be worse? "
"I have confidence in the parents of America," said Ginn. He said that parents would demand better quality for all schools. But Steele spoke of parents who care about their children but do not know how to manipulate the system to work for better schools.
"Choice has some problems," Steele said. If all families had access to the system and if affordable transportation were available for all children, then it might be possible for the proposed program to work. "But I can see segregation beginning again in our schools."
Clinton said his confidence in choice came from statistics after Minnesota initiated the option: 40 percent of schools made improvements, although only 1 percent of parents actually took advantage of the chance to move their children to another school.
Wada asked if the discussion had gone on too long about students as fodder for the work force. "Students ought to be able to read, write and compute," he said. "But we haven't talked about what K through 12 schools should teach about citizenship and social responsibility in a multicultural society. Schools have a responsibility for citizenship, values and self-esteem."
Bok asked if schools are stymied by the diversity of society. "Is there enough consensus out there for you to be able to tackle issues like what American history really is, and how you teach controversial issues like values and ethics without getting into a buzzsaw of competing values so severe that you will end up wishing that you had put your revenues somewhere else?"
Steele, with tongue in cheek, said this attempt was being made in Berkeley, where "everyone is more articulate than they are in Palo Alto . . . and all of us are people who act out our visions. The consensus is not there on every issue, but I believe that consensus is growing." She said the basis of Berkeley's strategic school plan is the statement, "We believe societies prosper to the extent that they care for their children. And that is the rock on which we can build in Berkeley."
"Well, to close the discussion on a hopeful note," said Bok, "if you can get consensus in Berkeley, you can get consensus anywhere."
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