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.