Posted by: schooleducator | April 29, 2009

The End of NCLB: Barack and Arne’s Infinite Playlist for Every Child

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The news that the achievement gap between minority and white students remains intractably wide, despite the pledge of No Child Left Behind to shrink this divide, comes as no surprise. Policy makers continue to pound the notion that standardized metrics are the way to track and sustain educational progress for all students. The answer to this dilemma has to start with customization, not standardization. Each community and each student are different and have varying needs. Policy makers, principals, teachers, and parents need to pool their resources and thinking to prepare a program that fits individual communities and students.

In The New York Times, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, hints at the shift in thinking and practice that needs to take place, when he says: “Where we see the gap narrowing, that’s because there’s been an emphasis on supplemental education, on after-school programs that encourage students to read more and do more math problems,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “Where there are programs that encourage that additional work, students of color do the work and their performance improves and the gap narrows.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan can start by creating a technology infrastructure for schools that mirrors the efficient system President Obama utilized to run his campaign. Through texting, email, blogging, Facebook, etc., President Obama gathered and used so much data about his supporters that he could attend to their needs and wants in the campaign. Mr. Duncan should do the same, as he brings together a team to figure out how to disseminate the precious dollars of the gargantuan $100 billion stimulus package. He needs to avoid the “well-worn” paths that Congressional financing has traveled and seek fresh pathways. The way to do this is to tap into the wealth of information he can gather in milliseconds with a carefully constructed electronic network engine. The current apparatus is akin to the limited integration of America’s utility system that Thomas Friedman describes in Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Mr. Friedman shares that there are 3,200 electric utility companies in America and traversing the grid is like taking local roads on a cross country drive. Mr. Duncan needs to overhaul and find a way to integrate the 14,000 school districts into one unified vision of 21st century education. This is a tall task, but now is the time to do it. As President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel likes to say, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

In the words of one fellow educator: “We are standing at the cusp of a revolution in education.” Columbia University Professor Mark Taylor has called to “End the University As We Know It.” He writes: “For many years, I have told students, “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it. My hope is that colleges and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academia to a future we cannot conceive.” This same thinking needs to trickle down to K-12 schools.

It is a shame that policy makers are not working day and night to find a way to tap into today’s technology to find out what will work for each individual community. When Facebook entertained and experimented with a change in its appearance, users generated an online revolt and Facebook shelved its change. Mr. Duncan no doubt has information at his finger tips, but he needs to reach out through texts, blogs, wikis, Facebook, and seek feedback from individuals and communities to develop models that can be customized for each community, within the umbrella of a unified vision of 21st century education. He should not focus his energies on “stricter” testing measures, where he appears to be headed. That will just bring more of the same and the numbers don’t add up to increased student performance and interest in school. Hrabowski notes that “Even middle-class students are unfortunately influenced by the culture that says it’s simply not cool for students to be smart.” It’s not that it’s not cool to be smart. The problem is that policy makers need to be smart, and not look to redouble their efforts to strengthen outdated standards. Instead, they need to give a face lift to the current model and inspire and enable community involvement to re-envision what school can be.

The title of NCLB should be renamed a Playlist for Every Child. Playlists allow users to group songs together so they can find them quicker and play a specific set of songs. Playlists can be manually or automatically assembled from a library based on specific criteria. Shift this model to school communities and schools grow toward customization and move away from standardization. Under the Playlist model, teachers work with their students to create meaningful, shared, collaborative learning modules. There can still be content wrapped in, but it forms around a skill and interest set that ignites and inspires students to the point that it becomes “cool to be smart” to develop and add to Playlists.

Music sites have already developed the tools for this to happen, and there is no reason education should wait. At Playlist.com, the mission is to “to help find and enjoy music legally throughout the web in the same way that other search engines help find webpages, images, and other media,” and they make it easy to “create playlists, share playlists with friends, and browse playlists of others.” The field of education could easily co-opt this model and expedite the transmission of knowledge and best practices. Teachers could add to their Playlists (which would essentially serve as lesson, unit, or program ideas), and utilize social networks to quickly broaden their repertoire, and better serve the needs of their students. Students across disciplines, school districts, states, and even countries, could share their Playlists, and cooperatively customize learning. Students could begin to be judged and evaluated by the quality of their Playlists and by the number of hits their Playlists get. The same could apply to teachers. School is no longer trapped inside hallways or classroom walls, and every child can zoom ahead.

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