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Stop Waiting: Learning for a Digital Age

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This teacher bashing must stop! It is an unwise diversion from what matters most: teaching children to love learning and be creative right from the start. As an unabashed ally in the moral outrage that animates Davis Guggenheim's powerful film "Waiting for 'Superman' ", count me as a skeptic of the proposed prescriptions advanced by the movie. Brent Staples of The New York Times gets it just right: "the many complex problems that have long afflicted public schools are being laid almost solely at the feet of the teachers' unions." He says that many of the attempts to demonize teachers are "cartoonish" and he is right.

"Waiting for 'Superman' " does get many things right. The look inside many vulnerable families
and the heroic commitment parents have to a better education that charter school pioneers like KIPP and SEED have delivered to their children belies the myths perpetuated by venal demogogues about low-income communities. I know that teaching today is no picnic: my son is a Teach For America corps member teaching in an inner-city charter school. Like many other teachers he is struggling mightily: working 14 hour days to help his kids get a better chance.

But the prescription in the film: a great expansion of charter schools and a push for a teacher
performance system and the end of tenure are not going to change the education world.

Here is why -- we are missing two key pieces of the puzzle: We are not committed to early childhood and family support needed to bathe children in a decent start, and we lack a strong commitment to use technology that can deepen and personalize learning in a digital age.

Instead of preparing for new needs with modern technologies, national policy has unintentionally turned many of our schools into test prep academies that are focused on standardized skill sets in a world that demands higher-level thinking. This approach, despite recent efforts to upgrade to a new common core is almost out of gas.

Perhaps most tellingly, we cannot even teach our kids how to read well and comprehend
the complex issues our generation has utterly failed to address! Millions of kids are reading below grade level in fourth grade, a key measure of school success. Why should everyone care how well kids read in primary school?

Because children who are below grade level by age ten tend to stagnate and eventually give up and drop out in high school. Harvard educational psychologist Jeanne Chall famously called this phenomenon the "fourth grade reading slump," where children cannot make the transition from learning to read to "reading to learn," which hinders their learning in all other subjects. Because of these early literacy setbacks America is losing the global race in science and math, areas central for 21st century skilled jobs.

While national policies such as No Child Left Behind have strongly emphasized the need to teach key reading skills like decoding and phonemic awareness in the early grades, and spent billions of dollars in promoting these areas, far too many students hit a wall by fourth grade and by high school more than 7000 students per week are dropping out, a national crisis that costs us billions of dollars in lost wages, according to Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.

To rectify the reading problem, we need to make sure that children have been exposed to a wide ranging vocabulary with complex words and ideas before age five. Kids who are read to frequently or who have a regular dialogue with parents or family members are exposed to a wide variety of experiences which prepare them for school. Unfortunately, today many low income children do not have this luxury. They have unemployed parents and difficult living situations and schools that fail to teach early literacy in a way that compensates for the lack of these skills.

It is here that digital media can make a vital contribution. Educational video games, handheld devices, and media production tools can allow young students to see how complex language and other symbol systems attach to the world. Digital media sites such as Sesame Street and The Electric Company have the potential to increase "book" vocabulary, and the concepts attached to such words, for children whose families are unable to do so.

If introduced into early childhood classrooms, digital media can have other major advantages. Early exposure to these media can teach students to master the production of knowledge, not just consumption. Kids as young as five or six can learn to play and create videos, write blogs, use educational apps, and collaborate online.

We recommend the following for policymakers, business leaders and practitioners to consider as we retool early learning for a digital century:

Create An Early Learning and Family Support System
The United States stands alone as the only developed nation that does not offer voluntary, universally available quality early-childhood education to underserved families. It is a national disgrace. In addition, during a difficult economic time, why not expand paid family leave to allow parents to spend more time with their infants and toddlers. Such leave could be accompanied by great parenting education courses drawn from the experiences of pioneering countries like Sweden where most men now take a full year off from work.

Establish a Digital Teacher Corps
Most early childhood practitioners are unskilled in embedding new media in powerful instructional practices. A Digital Teacher Corps should be established to work in the lowest-performing preschools and elementary schools in order to train teachers to help students learn to read by transforming information for discovery and problem-solving.

Create a "Digital Hangout for Kids" in Every Community.
Children as young as eight are already spending nearly seven and a half hours every day consuming all types of media, but very little of this time is spent on quality media or intentional learning, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Let's build on national models like Club Tech of the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Quest to Learn, Digital Youth Network and School of One models in Chicago and New York City. It is time to extend the learning day and create a place in every community where young children can gain confidence in their literacy and interactive technology skills.

Establish Model Digital Schools and Preschools in Every State
Highly successful, innovative small charter schools such as High Tech High, Apple Tree and KIPP Academies have proven that kids can learn essential literacy skills starting in early childhood with a personalized curriculum, integrated technology, and skillful teachers. Each state should establish at least one digital partnership Pre-K through third grade school as a model demonstration site. These schools should be laboratories for testing many different digital approaches to learning and assessment, as well as for testing different ways to break down the barriers in and out-of-school learning. They could become a hub for the professional development of digitally savvy teachers.

Modernize Public Broadcasting
Public broadcasting should continue to advance experimentation with new formats such as games, mobile media, and social network communities that will engage children in both literacy and digital skills. Educational media companies should also make available publicly-supported productions to educators at low or no cost via the internet and new communities of practice.

American policy makers and educators are at a dangerous crossroads: we can marginalize union villains and squeeze performance gains from stressed-out professionals living in a time warped learning paradigm. Alternatively we can invest in high quality early education and family support and embrace the potential revolutionary power of the digital technology that has engaged every three-year-old I know. These elements are the potent, untapped forces for change in the America's educational performance in the next decade. If we invest early and unlock personalized learning anytime, anywhere, we may one day stop waiting for magic bullets and super-human teachers.