I attended an education conference Friday hosted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group at Microsoft headquarters in Mountain View. The conference’s theme was Innovation and Equity. Hundreds of educators, business and technology leaders attended hoping to seek and share enlightenment on this issue. Congratulations to the SVLG organization for bringing these important players together.
I attended two panel discussions: education reforms and workforce development (The others were Edtech and STEM). The first focused on the new Common Core curriculum standards — how the new shift on thinking rather than memorization prepares students for the 21st century. The second, workforce development — how to educate and train students for jobs in the 21st century. It wasn’t hard to see the link. Or the massive undertaking to transform an education system. Or the dilemma that so many good jobs are available but not enough students (locally and nationally) with the necessary skills to fill them.
Some companies are working directly with community and four-year colleges to create training internships and a curriculum which better prepares students for high tech or jobs which require mid-level skills. Asked to define the classes students should take in middle school and high school, the answer was more math, more math. The problem, too few teachers who are able to teach math or feel comfortable teaching it, especially the math now required in Common Core. But one businessman said the major skills required were curiosity, self-motivation and knowing how to leverage online tools.
The challenges are daunting. Common Core, a national program implemented at the local level, is a major change for teachers, students and schools. And change is not easy. In California, local reform initiatives in funding and accountability represent a shift of responsibility to the local districts from the state. Most would agree that is a good. There is more funding for schools who have the most low-income, English learners and foster kids. Categorical funding has been reduced so there is more discretion at the local level on spending. But with strong teacher unions and little input from other sectors in the community, the result is probably that those extra funds will go into teacher salaries. One of the speakers pointed out that members of the Chamber of Commerce know their City Council but not their school board members. More community leaders need to get involved in the schools and the role of a school board member has taken on a new sense of urgency if local accountability is to work. On Sept. 9, the new assessments will be out based on the new Common Core tests. These tests are more challenging, demand reasoning rather than memorization, and the results may create an uproar. What is needed, according to one educator is “patience, persistence and humility.”
I was feeling overwhelmed with the challenge of transforming California’s education system into 21st century mode with the increasing number of children who need extra help, the shortage of qualified teachers to do the job, etc., etc. Then I attended the finale, a dramatic, informative and humorous talk by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy which offers a free online education to anyone anywhere in the world. To date there are 26 million student users in 190 countries.
Just try it. Brush up on your fractions or calculus. It’s fun. After you complete one lesson with all the right answers, you move on to a more advanced class. That’s not the way kids are taught in school. They are usually lumped together in a classroom, often regardless of ability. The teaching proceeds from one level to the next no matter if each student has mastered the content. It’s impossibly difficult for some and impossibly boring for others.
The Khan Academy (khanacademy.org) is not meant to supplant but to supplement. It started out when Khan was tutoring young cousins who were failing math. He designed funny interactive lessons for them and soon they were at the top of their class. This was in 2005. The word spread to friends and neighbors. It became a major hobby. Then in 2006, he was at a friend’s dinner party in San Mateo. The host suggested Khan put his lectures on videos and show them on YouTube. By 2009, this became more than a hobby. He quit his job as a hedge fund manager. The rest is history. Khan’s work became a national and tech sensation. He is now working with the College Board to provide free world- class test prep. Pixar in a box is a new teaching tool, all available for free. Maybe we can meet the challenge.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.