A few years ago a Time Magazine editorial related a twist of the story of Rip Van Winkle who awakens in the 21st century after a hundred year snooze and is of course utterly bewildered by what he sees. ‘Every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when finally he walks into a school room, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these.”’
American schools, the article says, ‘aren’t exactly frozen in time, but considering the pace of change in other areas of life, our public schools tend to feel like throwbacks. Kids spend much of their day as their great-grandparents once did. Kids living in a digital world too often have to ‘power down’ before entering the classroom. Many college professors disallow the use of computers and handheld devices even for taking notes.
A Nation Still At Risk
In 1983 the Reagan administration unveiled A Nation At Risk, which described a rising tide of mediocrity in America’s schools, stating that if a foreign power had forced the system on us we would have considered it an act of war. Yet no one since 1983 has seriously waged war against that mediocrity. In the most recent nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that we are not making progress at all. In fact the overall scores of 4th and 8th graders showed either no change or were two or three points lower than the report two years prior. Two-thirds of American school children are below grade level in math and reading! Even worse, on the PISA international report card, the United States ranks below the median of all industrialized countries while we spend more per student than any of them.
Every Student Can Be Proficient
Two weeks ago I spoke in Washington D.C. at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education (Rise) on how to get 90% of the students in any classroom performing at reading and math grade level proficiency in a single academic year no matter where they started at the beginning of the year. This is accomplished by using machines to do the heavy lifting of teaching and learning for twenty minutes a day in math and another twenty in reading and writing while repurposing the role of a teacher to provide one-on-one and small group instruction when students get stuck. High quality, computer assisted instructional software personalizes learning for each student at his or her level and moves each forward at their pace, not the pace of a batch processing factory model classroom.
I have seen classrooms where this works and children’s lives are changed forever. It should be the norm, not the exception. The reason it’s not the norm is that too many teacher colleges and the teachers they produce have not learned to trust the machine and refuse to change roles from the ‘sage on the stage’ with a ‘spray and pray’ mentality to an effective mentor and guide with more time to inspire critical thinking, evaluation, synthesis, creativity and collaboration which are far more fulfilling to teachers than failing to deliver content knowledge and academic skills.
Computer Instruction Requires Repurposing the Teacher’s Role
Rip Van Winkle would not have recognized the jobs done by today’s accountants and engineers who allow machines to do the work in minutes which once took days or even months. Accountants and engineers have not been replaced by machines: There are far more of them employed now than before electronic spreadsheets and CAD systems came on the scene. However, the roles of both professions have been entirely repurposed to much more valuable and important purposes. How is it other professions have made the switch and embraced modern tools but the teaching profession has dragged its feet? I believe it is because any accounting or engineering firms which would not make the switch would have died; they would have gone out of business. But because our children are too precious, we simply won’t let schools die in spite of their reluctance to adopt powerful instructional technology tools.
I have worked with teachers who have brought at least 90% of their students to grade level proficiency in math and reading in a single academic year by using high quality educational software. Once they experience it they feel liberated. One teacher told me how much easier and more joyful it is to get nearly every student at grade level with machine support than it was to get 45% proficient using manual instructional methods.
Utah’s UPSTART Leads the Way
Unprecedented increases in Pre-K student performance of four-year-olds have been accomplished by machine learning without any teacher at all. Utah’s UPSTART program for in-home, computer-delivered training for four year olds was initiated through SB2 in 2008. The legislature required a third party evaluation of the program to inform policymakers about the program’s effectiveness. The annual evaluations show that UPSTART kids are twice as prepared for kindergarten as the control group on the Brigance measure and three times as prepared on the Bader. UPSTART students in Utah enter Kindergarten at or near 1st grade level which is 2-3 times greater growth than non-UPSTART kids on 10 critical literacy skills regardless of their background or demographics. Unlike Headstart and some Pre-K programs whose effects typically dissipate in the first year or two of school, five years later, UPSTART students proficiency levels are twenty to thirty points higher than non-UPSTART students in their demographic cohort.
The Waterford Institute was the successful bidder for the program which is now reaching 20,000 of Utah’s 45,000 four-year-olds with a focus on low-income, minority, special ed, and English learners at a fraction of the cost of brick and mortar Pre-K programs. Waterford’s founder Dusty Heuston has taught that the way to eliminate the achievement gap for these students is to do it before third grade through personalized computer-assisted instruction for 15 to 20 minutes a day, four or five days a week.
Dusty’s dream of ending the achievement gap is now being recognized nationally as Ted Talk International announced that UPSTART is a recipient one of the Audacious Grants to bring UPSTART pilots to every state in the nation.
Utah is also working to transform K-12 teaching and learning through computer assisted instruction intended to personalize learning for every student, and give teachers the tools they need to deliver grade-level proficiency for every child.