Education Reform for a Sustainable Knowledge Economy

“The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.”  — Apple Executive

Wait, what?  I am hoping this statement means that the U.S. has stopped producing “brainwashed” people who are capable of nothing more than a follow-the-directions, assemble-the-iPhone, go-sleep-in-the-barracks, type of job.  I am hoping this statement is implying that our educational system is producing people who are over-qualified for such jobs, and who have the ability to be independent, creative and innovative thinkers.  If anything, our educational system is the foundation of a sustainable knowledge economy, right?  Are we educating our students in ways that prepare them for successful, challenging, innovative lives and careers?  If so, then China can certainly keep the iPhone assembly line.  Isn’t this a preferred method of instruction as opposed to the status quo “brainwashing” that encourages students or workers to simply follow directions and do as told?  Let’s look at where it all begins: our K-12 education system.

Recently, many changes have been proposed to the educational systems in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and my home state of Idaho.  Idaho’s Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has implemented landmark educational reforms in a plan called “Students Come First” which aims to “raise student achievement” (achievement here referring to better standardized test scores).  The plan initially required Idaho’s high school students to take an online course each year (4 total) before they graduate.  The plan also eliminated tenure for teachers and required that school districts provide a laptop for each student.  The plan, which has many of Idaho educators up-in-arms, seeks to promote education through technology while forgoing a portion of the traditional in-the-classroom experience.

Is this the way of the future for our education system?  This plan actually has me highly worried about the effects it will have on the students.  Technology is an amazing thing that simultaneously connects and isolates us, but does a laptop necessarily make a student a better learner?  No.  Do static online courses encourage or create active engagement?  No.  Will this method of instruction turn out “educated voters” and “passionate ideamakers?”  I am not overly convinced.

I support an overhaul of our K-12 education system, but wonder whether the proposed measures by Tom Luna are in the right direction and for the right reasons.  Luna’s plan seeks to cut budget costs by sticking our children in front of a computer screen.   I worry that a lack of face-to-face interaction will ultimately hurt our students and our future workforce.  Technology is a useful tool, but is not the most effective or engaging method of instruction for young students.   What about social skills, public speaking and the value of hands-on interaction?  What about the music, art, and shop classes?  What value are they given?  I’m seeing a trend in our cash-strapped public schools where these disciplines are being cut to make room for more “measurable” courses, such as math and science.  We are stifling students’ independence, creativity and innovation in favor of “measureable achievement.”  Are these the type of future workers, or rather, U.S. citizens that we want to produce?

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