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Transforming Teaching For Today's Tech-Savvy Young Children

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The recent series of reports on technology's unfulfilled promise by the New York Times called "Grading the Digital School" is an important wake-up call for everyone who claims that the digital frontier will help transform schools as we know them. While every other sector -- from manufacturing to health care to energy security to politics -- has been largely disrupted by the creative tech revolution of the past decade, scholars and skeptical journalists wisely remind us that "schools are a special case." To break through their deeply entrenched approaches, we must address two fundamental failures. By doing so we can advance the still powerful possibility that educational technology can be a positive disruption for our nation's learning capacity.

First, technology on its own is relatively neutral: But if teachers and other caregivers are not knowledgeable about ways to deploy key design elements to personalize, deepen and extend learning, we face the typical adaptation cycle in which practitioners place new labels on the same old ineffective practices. Second, our country is rapidly escalating gaps in income and opportunities to learn that if left unchecked, will cascade for at least a generation. The current 2012 election debate over long-term economic policy options that are completely silent on education reform, and the dismal recent NAEP and PISA performance data which show our performance in reading, math and science either flat-lined or lagging behind other countries' advances are cause for alarm for anyone who is serious about our nation's future prospects as an innovation leader.

There are some important steps we can take, starting now, to address these linked problems: I propose that a new emphasis on capable teaching and more effective parenting of children in their preschool and primary years is the most cost effective way to respond to the related educational and economic crises we face.

Last week, The Digital Age Teacher Preparation Council, established by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, with support from the Joyce Foundation, released the report "Take a Giant Step," detailing a multi-sector action plan to enhance teacher education and a higher quality, 21st century approach to the learning and healthy development of children in preschool and the primary grades.

Co-chaired by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and myself, the Council found that the integration of research-based and innovative training models are a key missing element in the design of quality early learning programs. We reviewed research by independent scholars (sponsored by foundations and government agencies) to conclude that less than half of all early childhood programs in the U.S. are of high enough quality to promote significant learning among underserved students.

In addition, recent studies like Common Sense Media's report "Zero to Eight" have shown that children ages 3-8 are consuming 3-7 hours of media daily. This finding by itself is cause for concern that parents are not exercising wise judgment in limiting media consumption to a reasonable balance. But their research also shows a disturbing "app gap" between the upper income children who have access to powerful new technologies such as iPads and smartphones and those who can barely afford regular Internet access in their homes.

These studies drive home several key issues, but two stand out: First, teachers cannot teach and parents cannot perform their duties responsibly if they do not have access, or appropriate guidance, training and support to deploy new technologies; and second, if we don't place a sharp emphasis on the 1.5 million children who enter kindergarten every year already behind their peers, we will face enormous long-term societal challenges.

The Council's report, "Take a Giant Step," sets forth several goals to meet by 2020 to integrate digital media in education to help bring the most underserved students up to speed with 21st century skills including:

  • Advance technology integration and infrastructure -- The President and Congress should expand broadband policies and technology integration efforts to cover publicly supported preschool programs.
  • Modernize professional learning programs and models -- States, local districts, Head Start and other early learning programs should develop curricula and training resources for teachers and parents on the appropriate use of technologies with young children. The Council recommends specific reforms to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to integrate the use of technology in both preparation and ongoing training programs.
  • Expand public media use as a cost-effective asset for teachers -- Given their low cost, research-based development, but current limited use in early childhood settings, the Council recommends the creation of more public-private partnerships to create and distribute public media assets more widely.
  • Create a Digital Teacher Corps -- A new public-private partnership should be designed to support a corps of 5,000 teachers whose goal is to integrate modern technologies and best teaching practices to address the "fourth grade reading slump" that afflicts over one million young children annually.

If we can meld the breakthrough possibilities of technology with a firm and passionate commitment to meeting the needs of our most vulnerable kids, we will be responding to the legitimate criticism advanced by the NY Times series that technology in education has all too often been a convenient commercial excuse for "selling new wine to be placed in old bottles."

In releasing "Take a Giant Step," Linda Darling-Hammond, the nation's leading expert on teacher quality and professional reform said: "Teaching young children today demands a new approach to an exciting but increasingly complex set of challenges. Quality early learning programs in our digital age will be led by highly prepared, flexible teachers who can effectively integrate what they know about healthy child development with the resources of an always connected, thoroughly modern environment. Together we can deploy technology to design a new pathway for our youngest kids -- where teaching is intentional, learning is engaging, and community matters most." Wise words indeed.

The Digital Teacher Preparation Council consisted of 18 leaders from a variety of fields including teacher education, child development, literacy, science, public service media and technology Take a Giant Step was written by Brigid Barron, Laura Bofferding, Gabrielle Cayton-Hodges, Carol Copple, Linda Darling-Hammond and Michael H. Levine. The full report is at www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/Reports.html.