"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Encouraging Talent and Innovation in Public Education

There have been many recent articles and tributes to Steve Jobs, the founder and moving force behind Apple, and most have noted his remarkable ingenuity, creativity, and insight into consumer behavior. Jobs had a vision of how to reform the rapidly accelerating computer technology and make it accessible, attractive, and interactive. In a recent article in the New York Times (see my blog post Educational Reform – Encouraging the Talented), Perry Metzger said: “Amidst the oceans of enforced mediocrity....Jobs showed that the real path to excellence was excellence...You could do great things by being smart and having excellent taste...".

The issue is how do we reform our basic education system to provide a learning environment which stimulates and encourages such innovation and creativity?

Currently primary education is still under the yoke of “collaborative learning” where slower students are assisted in the classroom by those more talented. While this approach may be attractive on the surface, appealing to our very American sense of equality, it has the unintended consequence of impeding the learning of those who possess strong learning skills, educational ambition, and considerable native abilities. To make matters worse, many school districts are dismantling programs for the gifted and talented and investing this money in programs for students with special needs, programs which are already well-funded and –supported. While I am in favor of continuing programs for such students, I am also in favor increasing focus, attention, and investment on those who exhibit talent, ability, and promise.

Programs for the Gifted and Talented, while offering some enrichment to an otherwise mediocre learning environment, are not the answer, for they are only add-ons, overly selective, and often little of the real discipline and attention required for accelerated learning. Real structural and systemic change is required. For example, I would like to see programs where students are able to skip grades if they have the ability and maturity to do so. I would like to see a return to progressive classrooms where students are divided by ability to learn basic subjects like math and English, thus enabling them to learn at a rate and rhythm appropriate to them. I would like to enable talented primary school 6th graders to take courses in junior high or even high school.

Readjusting and realigning public school programs to foster this equality will not be easy, since there are enough older teachers and administrators in place who remain committed to collaborative education. Teachers unions have been obstacles to real educational reform.  A more important reason, however, is the continuing conviction on the part of many Americans that promoting ‘equality’ takes precedence over favoring excellence.   We cannot favor the highly talented, the argument goes, because it will make less able students seem inferior.  It will damage their self-esteem.  It will cause irreparable social and psychological harm. 

Yet, there is no reason not to favor the exceptional while addressing the needs of less advantaged.

An article in today’s (11/4) Washington Post by Michael Gerson (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/economic-inequality-is-the-wrong-issue/2011/11/03/gIQATYUqjM_story.html) talks about income equality vs. equality of economic opportunity, and he suggests that too much focus has been placed on the former and not the latter. Promoting economic mobility, he concludes, will enable most people to become better-off economically and socially. This same argument can be made for education – promote educational mobility to enable all who are able to move up.

Another important element of educational reform – and one closely related to the first – is to promote a sense of entrepreneurship even in lower grades (see my blog post Educational Reform III). This is not a crypto-capitalist argument, insidiously training young Wall Streeters, but a serious argument which says that we must move beyond the stagnant, tread water, conservative, and very old-fashioned educational model in place, and replace it with one which encourages innovative thinking per se – creative and analytical thinking which will serve not only the economic entrepreneur but the thinker, the artist, the educator.

The following article in a recent NY Times Opinion Section by Michael Ellsberg adds to this discussion by suggesting that:

American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics, and historians.  But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors.  America has a shortage of job creators.  And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs…

If start-up activity is the true engine of job creation in America, one thing is clear: our current educational system is acting as the brakes,.  Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and graduate school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business.  Skills like sales, networking, creativity, and comfort with failure…

Start-ups are creative endeavor by definition.  Yet our current classrooms, geared toward tests on narrowly-defined academic subjects, stifle creativity…

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/opinion/sunday/will-dropouts-save-america.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=will%20dropouts%20save%20america&st=cse

This view is not restricted to the United States. South Koreans have the same complaints raised by certain American educators – too little emphasis is placed on creativity, innovation, and management skills, the essential elements for higher-order economic productivity. In a recent article in the Washington Post (October 24) Washington Post by Fred Hiatt, he describes how

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-south-korea-too-many-college-grads-too-few-jobs/2011/10/21/gIQANu7eAM_story.html

South Koreans are deeply unhappy with their system. They complain about an emphasis on memorization, a stifling of creativity, a failure to teach usable English and a weakness in developing leadership skills.

In conclusion, I would like to see real structural change in basic education – change that will encourage, promote, and reward the talented; and will foster the innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial thinking, and which will benefit students, communities, and the country.

To be published in REAL STORY PUBLISHING www.realstorypublishing.com on Tuesday 11/8

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