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Friday, February 27, 2009

21. Phoenix Rising

What is the function, goal, or purpose of our public education system? Is it to ensure that every American child is educated and knowledgeable enough to compete in today’s technological age? Or is it to simply move students though an antiquated system which hemorrhages money from tax payers while supporting a massive, ineffective, bureaucratic white elephant which produces results that can only be graded as failure?

Regardless of any official response by the NEA, the public school system or any other public school organization, the actual answer is the second. Currently in the US, over fifty percent of students leave school classified as functionally illiterate, with an education level less than the fifth grade. In poorer urban areas, such as Detroit, the number soars to seventy-five percent. Blaming lack of funds is pointless since we already spend more per student than other industrialized countries with superior educational records. Even within the US there is no correlation between spending per student per state and performance results. Private schools and charter schools generally cost much less per student than public education yet they also yield far better results.

Our public schools are bleeding us dry economically and leaving our children completely unable to compete in a modern society. Is it any wonder that American companies turn to foreign labor for computer programmers, engineers and technicians when our children leave school unable to do basic math and write simple sentences. What jobs await a generation of illiterate Americans in an age which demands specialized knowledge instead of merely a strong back for the plowing and harvesting of fields? Yet even in our colleges and universities, the emphasis is on liberal arts, humanities, and racial and gender studies – course work which leads not to in-demand, high-paying jobs, but jobs in education or, for most, as clerks in department stores.

The question that should be asked by our school system is, “What is the most effective method to teach?” This question should be the basis of our educational system. Not only do our public, and even many private, school systems not ask this question they have in fact, continued to teach in the same way as when this country was founded over 200 years ago. We continue to throw a mix of students into a classroom with a textbook and a teacher and expect that nine months later the students will have learned and will retain what is necessary to advance to the next grade and on to succeed in life.

Each element, the teacher, the textbook, homework and the class structure all ensure failure. And failure we have seen. Sadly, the comment I’ve heard from more than one teacher is, “the public has to understand that some children simply can’t learn.” Not only do the methods of teaching employed by our school system guarantee failure, but many teachers have been institutionalized to believe that the onus for education is solely on the student and not upon the teachers and the school system.

Let’s look at each element of our current system and why it should surprise no one that our school system has failed us and will continue to fail us unless radically changed.


Excluding a child's parents, teachers are probably the most important link in education. Yet, as humans, they too fall under the bell curve of performance. Five percent will be outstanding, the next ten percent will be very good and the rest fall quickly into mediocrity and on into incompetence. Even those who may have once been great teachers can easily become bored, indifferent and ineffective. Excellent, motivated teachers become frustrated with a system that does not allow change and creativity nor rewards them for successful results. With tenure and the protections provided by the teacher’s unions, these numbers could actually be worse as it is almost impossible to weed out bad instructors in the system.

The better the teacher – the better the education. Yet statistically a student is likely to encounter only 5 to 7 great teachers in their lifetime. This is exactly the number I came up with in looking back at my time from elementary school through college and the number is right on the 5% mark as stated above.

Are the best teachers even in the education system? Some of the most knowledgeable and exciting educators are likely in private enterprise. They have a wealth of knowledge to share but choose not to enter teaching as a full-time profession.

But even with the best teachers, they are not necessarily the best or most effective teachers for each student nor can any one teacher meet every student’s learning needs.


Textbooks are probably the weakest link in our education system. They are written, evaluated by teams of editors and educators, used for a few years, discarded and then new textbooks become available. Yet, as far as I can tell, there has never been a system to evaluate a textbook’s effectiveness. Did it actually engage and teach students? If not, then how can it be changed so as to become effective?

Sadly, this question doesn’t even seem to be on the radar screen of the educational system. Sadly also, this is a great opportunity that is missed in education. As someone who enjoys reading, I know that text does not have to be dull to contain and teach important information.


This is probably the most antiquated element of our school system. We place our students in a classroom from September until June, break the year down further into semesters and quarters and from 8:00am to 3:00pm hope for the best. All based on a farming schedule that no longer exists for almost anyone in the US.

We all learn at different rates and even those that may learn quickly in math may at the same time learn much more slowly in English or history. Does the structure allow for this? No, there are few allowances. It is the same structure for each student in each subject.


Homework is definitely an important part of education. Working through problems, researching information and writing essays are all important methods of learning. Yet, homework in our school systems has become too much of “busy work” in which nothing is learned.

Another problem with homework is, who exactly is doing the work? The student? The parent? The tutor? I’ve seen tasks assigned to third graders that no fifth grader could accomplish. Only with the intervention of parents can the assignment be completed. Presently in the school system, homework is routinely not returned to the student for evaluation. If I cannot see what I have done wrong, how can I then know what I need to go back and learn or review? Writing is learned almost exclusively through writing, editing, re-writing and then re-writing again. Not being able to review what is both correct and incorrect with assigned work does not lend itself to education.

What is the objective of education?

Shouldn’t the objective of education be to ensure that all students excel to the best of their abilities? That each student, regardless of their IQ, their parent’s abilities, their economic background or even their language skills, has the best opportunity to learn and be educated? We cannot have a great society if our citizens are illiterate. We continue to move into a technological age that demands scientists and mathematicians yet we turn out students who cannot read, write nor even add and subtract.

The complaint of the public school system is primarily money, although I have heard teachers also blame society, the media, music, etc., etc. All of this finger pointing is a complete waste of time. The tools are available to ensure that each student receives the best education possible, yet, with the exception of some home schooling tools, no large education system is even bothering to move in this direction. Not only is it possible, it is inexpensive.

What is possible?

The answer to our educational problems lies in a virtual internet classroom. The internet possess the power to be the greatest educational tool ever available, a virtual classroom which can reach every student in the world. A tool, if used properly, which can reach and educate every student, addressing their individual learning needs and evaluating each teaching method implemented. And – when methods are not effective, change instantly.

Let’s first start with education objectives – measurable objectives. What should every student know at the end of their formal schooling? What level of reading and comprehension should they achieve? What about math? History? Writing? What tools and knowledge do they need to succeed in society and in higher education?

Once these objectives are defined, the second goal is to determine the best method to teach these objectives to each student. I don’t have to be a teacher to know that some mix of audio and visual is probably the most effective. Start with a great teacher, a great communicator and put him or her on video. Start adding other visual and audio tools to determine what mix effectively impresses the information into a student’s brain. If we are talking about the civil war, show photographs and videos of the battlefields, the people involved, and maps of the region. Produce films that engage students while teaching them facts, not Hollywood pseudo-history. The presentation may not even include a human teacher – animation or computer generated graphics may be what is most engaging. Instead of casting effective teachers aside, as the public school system did with Jaime Escalante, analyze and duplicate their methods and reward those teachers financially for their innovation.

Homework need no longer always be separate from the lecture. It can be integrated into the flow. Learning can become entertaining or even a game with problems to solve and text to read as part of the lecture-type presentation. This not only helps the student to learn but allows the teaching programs to evaluate their progress. A method to track progress, to discover where the student’s learning is deficient and re-present the same material in possibly another more effective format for this student.

If one student requires more video stimulus, the course can automatically adjust to meet that student’s needs. If a student learns and retains more from reading than from audio, the tool can shift again. We know many of us quickly retain information presented in rhyme or song format. This is how most of us learned our ABCs. Employ song writers to compose learning tools, especially incorporating what would be considered dry information such as dates of significant events. We all know when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” because of a rhyme. Yet most Americans cannot even place the civil war in the correct century.

If students finish a presentation and cannot meet the minimum requirement of a review exam, they can not only go back and re-take the course but can also consider alternative options for this particular coursework. Maybe another program, teacher or virtual classroom is clearer and more effective. Also, those producing the material can change and edit the material should their internal auditing of student progress show that the coursework is not effective in thoroughly teaching the students the required material. These techniques can be analyzed, quantified and duplicated so that every student has access to great educators and excellent teaching methods. The methods can be constantly refined and improved, working toward 100% education of all students. Students no longer need to be afraid to raise their hand in class when confused. The virtual classroom works with them, providing more information as necessary in a variety of formats to ensure that each student understands and retains the material. A student is not locked into one classroom, one teacher or one school.

Education does not need to be dull to be effective, in fact, the opposite is true. We are more likely to learn and retain information when we are entertained and engaged. In college, I had two professors in whose classes I rarely took notes. They were such effective speakers that they impressed the information upon me without my writing anything down on paper. In some cases it was entertaining, such as my economics professor standing on his desk singing, “Look for the union label” to introduce the effect of unions on our economy. In another situation, it was a passionate educator who knew how to speak effectively and impress his knowledge upon our class.

Students with a passion in one course can then have access to further information. Instead of ending the class at the end of the text, he can explore and learn beyond the curriculum, as long as, of course, he continues to do well in all other courses. The programs can even evaluate and use those courses a student finds especially interesting as a carrot to entice them to work through the more difficult subjects.

The programs can even evaluate a student’s strengths and interests and begin suggesting possible careers that would interest a student. The average high school graduate is usually only familiar with one job, that of a teacher, since it is the only profession he or she has witnessed. Programs can introduce students to a myriad of occupations which they likely, never knew existed.

What about those people in private enterprise, the ones actually building the buildings, the bridges, developing software or researching new drugs? Without leaving their laboratories or offices they too can reach millions of students and enlighten them with their knowledge and experience. It can be complete course work or lectures on just one or two topics.

There are no time constraints with such a system. The student can log in and work through each course at his or her own pace. Unlike the current classroom, a student can review any topic that is not clear. Further examples can be presented to clarify the subject. Students who excel in one subject can move quickly, at their pace, through the material, eliminating the problem of a good student being bored by classroom progress while slower students struggle. Which is more important, having students finish school in 12 years and be illiterate, or having them finish in 14 years and be fully educated? Realistically, a system like I propose would most likely greatly reduce the time necessary for education, for both the gifted and the challenged student.

Political indoctrination has become an issue in education. Leftist teachers with captive audiences rant daily about their political beliefs with no opposing view opined to give the students a balanced view. I was also subjected to such bloviating in high school and would not hear any opposing view point until much later in my life. This issue would quickly become a non-issue as parents can review and rate educators in the virtual school. Parents can not only review the material presented to their children but can also become quickly involved in their education as they too can log on and work along with their diminutive scholars.

Evaluation of the current system is almost impossible. Even if it could be properly evaluated, it cannot be effectively changed as teachers are in their own classroom each day, each using their own, unique methodologies. Their weaknesses cannot each be realistically addressed and their strengths cannot be brought to other classrooms.

What of the cost of such a system? The initial cost would be in the production of each module. As education modules go online, the best will quickly profit and will refine and improve their coursework. Even at a cost of only $1 per course module per student, an excellent educator could easily make several million dollars a year. The cost per student for a full year could drop from the current $8,000 to $13,000 to several hundred, including a computer and other necessary materials. Such a system need not be limited to the wealthy, I believe strongly in publicly funded education but I am strongly opposed to government controlled education which provides no choice to parents or students.

Clearly not all courses can be simply reduced to an interactive audio/video presentation. Writing is a great example of something which requires constant feedback, rework and editing. Yet, teachers with a passion for writing can still offer courses, albeit probably more expensive than $1 per course per student, to evaluate, encourage and inspire students. Their work can reach not only those of us who need to write no more than a coherent letter but to those wishing to write the next great American novel.

Some courses would need to move beyond the virtual world into a physical realm. Learning centers could easily be funded and staffed at a fraction of the cost of current education. Small children would also most likely need more mentoring and monitoring. The virtual classroom can be in ones home or in a more traditional setting with proctors and teaching assistants helping the students move through their course work.

Testing, beyond that embedded in the virtual classroom, would probably also be necessary to ensure each student is learning the coursework. Again, such centers could be made available, even temporary centers, to ensure progress.

On-line libraries of course material can be established and the course work evaluated and rated, by staff, students and parents, as to their effectiveness. These virtual schools need not stop at high school. Imagine each of us being able to get a “Harvard Education” each from our own home. If the professors at these colleges and universities truly are the best, then make them available to the world instead of just an elite few with parents possessing deep pockets or the proper political connections.

In a virtual classroom – including university level – industry can begin to influence the curriculum by providing the coursework and teaching the skills necessary for students to succeed in their selected fields. I have attended college level classes after working in the “real world” which were either completely irrelevant or the information presented was totally wrong. Yet there is no monitoring or evaluating of these courses. Not only can providing such course work be profitable to the companies in a variety of disciplines, it also provides them with the educated hiring pool necessary to staff and grow their companies.

As home schooling has become more popular in the United States, those opposed to such a system continually bring up “lack of socialization” as an objection to such a system. A virtual classroom, especially for many students working from their homes would raise the same protest. This is probably the weakest of all objections to non-traditional education. Most of the socialization occurring in our schools is not positive. Peer pressure includes smoking, the taking of drugs, non-performance in school (because it isn’t cool), clothing, pressure on physical appearance, or being classified as a nerd or a geek. Some schools in urban areas do little more than try to control violence. As I mentioned above, slower students regularly suffer from “socialization” in the class room as they are mocked for being “stupid” and for asking “dumb questions.” This process causes them to withdraw, remain silent, and stop learning. But what I find especially difficult to understand is that anyone would rather their child be “socialized” than educated. An illiterate adult, no matter how social, is still unlikely to find work. Socialization can take place in church groups, sports, organized social activities and clubs. School is not the only place that interacting with others can take place.

The possibilities in education are endless with the use of the computer and the internet. So far, only a few home schooling companies and teachers have tapped into this market and are making progress. The established school and university systems will fight such a change as their objectives have little to do with education, their objectives are about maintaining their empire and their power.

Fortunately, it is an empire about to collapse and its destruction will benefit every child and every student with access to the internet.