07/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Robots in Education

Engineers have made great advances in robotics in recent years. Everyday-robots can vacuum rugs and mop floors. More advanced models can act as secretary of education. Call it the Arne model. Boot it up and it talks and talks and talks. But it appears to lack two functions, the ability to say anything concrete and the ability to link its various sayings with the old human function known as logic.

For instance, in his June 14 speech to a National Governors Association meeting, Robot Arne said, "The genius of our system is that much of the power to shape our future has wisely been distributed to the states instead of being confined to Washington." Yet in an interview after that talk he said, "What you've seen over the past couple year is a growing recognition from political leaders, educators, unions, nonprofits--literally every sector--coming to realize that 50 state doing their own thing doesn't make sense." A concept goes from wisdom to nonsense in a single speech!

In none of the speeches I've heard or read--and I've been tracking them pretty closely, has the robot Arne used the word "constitution," a document which, in the field of education is supposed to ensure that each state does its own thing.

What he does often mention, as in his speech to the National Press Club in late May, is, "What we have had as a country, I'm convinced, is what we call a race to the bottom." That the two "we's" obviously have different referents is of little import. What is, is that in that downward race, some 35,000 schools have been identified as "failing" under that Katrina of public education, No Child Left Behind. "Last year," Duncan told the governors," "there were about 5,000 schools in 'restructuring' under NCLB. These schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress for at least five years in a row."

These are presumably the 5,000 chronically under-performing schools that robot Arne wants to close and "turn around." Such an action raises several questions. First, just where are 5,000 excellent principals to run these schools? Have our star leaders just been waiting in the wings all this time? And what about the needed tens of thousands of ace teachers? Where are they? Are they lurking out there somewhere in the bayous of Louisiana or the sands of Nevada?

Second, Duncan told an audience at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor he wants "college-ready, career-ready international standards, very high bar." (Often when he speaks extemporaneously I hear the sound of grammarian teeth-gnashing). Well, if our race to the bottom has generated 35,000 failing schools, 5,000 of which are hopeless in robot Arne's eyes, what will a much higher bar produce?

Finally, supposing for a moment we could find all those teachers and principals, would that be enough? Even an outlet not known for its searching questions to people in positions of authority, U. S. News & World Report, caught the lack of logic here. "Would simply replacing teachers and principals work? If all the other factors in a low-achieving student's life--family, neighborhood, social life--were to remain constant, would substituting an outstanding teacher for an ineffective teacher reverse the achievement levels? Are good teachers and principals all that is needed to turn around struggling schools, the majority of which are in impoverished communities where the parents might not have the time to help their children succeed in school?"

The magazine stops short of describing the full range of the problems kids in impoverished neighborhoods face: lack of adequate prenatal care, ingestion of alcohol and drugs, having only one parent, food insecurity, toxins such as mercury and lead, and inadequate or missing health care (that kid who's having trouble learning to read might need an eye doctor; the kid who's inattentive might not be able to hear what the teacher is saying; the kid who can't concentrate might have a head full of tooth cavities).

Finally, robot Arne told the governors he was throwing $350 million into test development to back up the new high standards because, "I think in this country we have too many bad tests." I'm sure ETS, CTB-McGraw Hill, Pearson, etc., loved that one since they make most of them, but if that's true, then logic might make one wonder if those "bad tests" were the right ones to identify the bad schools. But as I said at the start, Robot Arne doesn't do logic.

And it's too bad the reporter covering the talk didn't ask Arne what a "good" test would look like. That question would have produced a deluge of clichés ("tests that measure whether students are mastering complex materials and can apply their knowledge," etc.), but nothing specific because, as I said at the start, Robot Arne doesn't do concrete.