New Approaches to Education Key to U.S. Competitiveness

Ann All

As the mother of an 8-year-old, I know kids learn more when lessons feel more like an enjoyable exercise than a chore. Personal attention from teachers helps, but it's getting tougher to provide that since schools suffering from budget constraints can't afford to employ more teachers. While education has always been important and resource-strapped schools have been a pressing issue for years, it's critical now as countries like India and China invest in their educational systems.


It's exciting to see efforts like those of California's nonprofit MIND Research Institute, which created a visual math program that has raised math scores at schools in Silicon Valley. According to a San Jose Mercury News story, the number of fourth graders at one school performing at grade level ability or better in a standardized test rose from 9 percent in 2007 to 70 percent this year, with a healthy chunk of students achieving above grade level. The program was created by three University of California scientists and features an animated penguin named JiJi. It's used by schools in 22 states. In Silicon Valley, part of the funding was provided by Netflix founder Reed Hastings, Stephen Herrick, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Symantec and Cisco, according to the story.


It's nice to see technology companies playing a part in these kinds of educational initiatives. In July I wrote about a program in New York called School of One. Backed in part by Microsoft and Cisco, it uses an individualized learning approach to help middle school students improve their math skills. In addition to trying new approaches in K-12 curriculums, it'd be nice to see more of them in university programs. Again, Microsoft provided funding for a program I wrote about in 2007 that was designed to make college computer science courses more accessible.


President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have begun floating the idea of making school days longer in the U.S. and lengthening the school year as a way of improving American educational scores. Not surprisingly, it's a polarizing issue. Supporters say some school districts that are already experimenting with longer hours are seeing good results. Detractors say it would be expensive to implement a longer school year , would stress kids out and would hurt the U.S. tourism industry.


I don't see it as an ideal solution, but I think it's worth a try. Sure, it would add expense, but if we aren't willing to make investments to improve our educational system, what does that say about us as a country? As a parent, I do worry about overloading kids. I think "down time" or recreation breaks should be scheduled into longer school days. The argument about tourism is kind of silly. Do we really think the long-term future of our country is better served by keeping hotel occupancy up during summer months?


Regardless of whether the U.S. decides to modify traditional school schedules, hopefully innovative learning tools like JiJi the penguin and School of One will become more common in our classrooms. An Albany (NY) Times Union story about Obama's proposal quotes an honors Spanish teacher:


Parent involvement and supplies and technology, having these kids be more aware, is what's going to make us a better global competitor.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Sep 30, 2009 2:25 AM Publius Publius  says:

I agree that our school curricula need to be strengthened and that parents need to have greater hands on involvement with their children's education. However, even if our kids excel through college meeting or exceeding the educational rigor of other countries, they will still encounter difficulties getting a decent job. Why? Corporations want cheap Chinese and Indian labor. Much of the corporate  handwringing about "Johnny can't read, compute. etc" is a red herring to justify a never ending flow of cheap compliant H-1B labor. There are those of us who ARE educated and up to speed with anyone else in the world but corporate America pretends we don't exist so they can import and exploit indentured servants. With double digit unemployment, this outrage has to stop.

Sep 30, 2009 5:25 AM Unemployed in Detroit Unemployed in Detroit  says:

Indians prefer to travel to the US and study at US universities because we have a superior education system. It is a myth that India "invests" in their education system; in reality Indians have to come to the US to get training in skills that are not present in the Indian education system. More proof of that is obtained from reading stories about the H-1B program where Americans have had to train Indian IT workers because they did not have the qualifications for the temporary positions they obtained, many times obtained through the use of fake resumes and fraudulent qualifications. The myth of the "educated Indian" is, as has been stated many time before, nothing more than a propaganda smokescreen meant to cover over the fact that the real reason Indians are bought into the US is to pay them wages lower than their American counterparts.

Oct 1, 2009 8:51 AM Marcia E Marcia E  says:

Ann -

I agree with you here. Go to math or science high school conferences here in the US, and you'll see an active drive to recruit more US kids into these fields - we're coming up short. And, contrary to the points in the responses so far, you'll find that there are excellent schools in these other countries that are churning out high-quality science and engineering personnel. (Those that come to the US to study often do so because of the cache of a US education - just as our kids here will opt for an Ivy League school over a State School all other things being equal, students from other countries often opt for US educations because their US degrees will carry more weight worldwide).

We can and should do better - however, unlike many other countries that are investing heavily in education reform, we tend to rest on our laurels or do programs like "no child left behind" which focus on scores without funding reform.  And, unfortunately, we often do not teach math and science with the same rigorous discipline they are taught elsewhere.

A restructuring that provides more productive time in school has a lot of promise - so too is a long hard look at what it will take for our kids to be most effective and successful in an increasingly IT world. And I think we have to be very careful about declaring this a commodity issue (as the other respondents have).  While there are companies that are recruiting heavily overseas just for cheap personnel -  there are plenty that also recognize that there are very highly qualified personnel to be had too.

Jul 24, 2010 2:03 AM Lucille Lucille  says:

I do not think that lengthened school hours are the answer. There is more than one way to learn, and time spent at home with family is valuable for relationship-building, de-stressing, sports, etc. We have a bona-fide childhood obesity problem in this country, and chaining kids to desks for more hours per day is not the answer.

I think there is such constant emphasis on assessment that many teaching hours are lost to this spastic need to constantly ascertain how the kids are testing. I say plow through the material, do more work (less assessment) in the class time provided because parents have become far too comfortable with the idea that education has been delegated to "experts" and have nearly lost their confidence in their ability to help their students succeed.


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