We Need SOLE: American Adults Failing Modern Literacy Standards

A new OECD report comparing American adults’ mathematical and technological literacy indicates that we do not stack up well against our global competitors.

The following chart was taken from the report and shows that American adults are not prepared to lead the way in creativity or innovation during the 21st century due to below average proficiency in mathematics and  problem solving employing technological solutions.

The implications are vast. According to the report:

“The median hourly wage of workers who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts is more than 60% higher than for workers who can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information. Those with low literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed.”

For anyone who has spent time in an American classroom over the last 20 years, the information contained in this report is old news. With the increase in administrative requirements and quantitative methods of assessment, our overall ability to educate American children and promote adult literacy has fallen by the wayside. Instead we have opted for a two-tiered education system.

On the elite tier we have private day schools with student-teacher ratios of less than 15:1 where qualitative models of curriculum development, student led learning and holistic projects are the norm. In this system students produce portfolios/projects to show competency across a wide range of subject areas. They are guided by teachers who have diverse backgrounds in mathematics, literature, science and the arts to create meaningful learning experiences that cannot be easily measured on standardized tests. Nevertheless, these students generally outperform their counterparts on traditional measures of learning too.  Their ACT and SAT scores are significantly higher that those educated in steerage classrooms, the feed lots of contemporary education.   When students raised on the day school model enter college, they are ready to engage in research, pursue creative ideas, and occasionally, as the dot com era shows, start global companies that can change the world.

On the steerage tier small schools have teacher-student ratios of 25:1 in elementary school generally increasing to 35-40:1 by high school. As Sir Ken Robinson notes in his TED Talk students are turned into low-level clerical workers and spend years repeating the same redundant base literacy skills learned in elementary school throughout grades 7-12.  They take fragmented classes that last 45 minutes or less in large groups where student-teacher interaction is minimized. If students are lucky enough to encounter a creative teacher who can build assignments around projects/portfolios, they are very fortunate.

When students finish up in the steerage tier system, only 10-20% are ready to tackle even the most basic college assignments. A stunning 60% will require remediation in math and reading when they enter college. Still, many will manage to complete a bachelor’s degree and will earn significantly more than their counterparts who do not choose college and are not at all prepared for adult life.

Enter the SOLE Project:

The OECD report also shows that older adults have a significant knowledge gap in problem solving with technology versus their younger counterparts within a particular country.  Certainly the gap is attributable to the rapid advance of technology over the last 30 years.  While younger adults ages 25-34 have grown up on the web, their older counterparts ages 55+ have had to gradually adapt to an increasingly technological environment. The skill gap is significant and has dire implications for the economic well-being of both the Baby Boomer Generation (B. 1946-1964) and Generation X (B. 1965-1985).  Adults in both groups lacking technological skills have few options to participate in the 21st century economy and earn a living wage.

The solution to this problem is not to send older adults for retraining in the same dead schools that created the present situation. The American university is collapsing at the undergraduate level due to the deprofessionalization of academic teaching and the growth of administrative bloat. Neither community colleges nor overpriced for-profit vocational training can adequately address the skills gap. We need SOLE, if we are to prevent American adults from falling into dire poverty as  employment opportunities for low skill workers disappear.

SOLE stands for “self organized learning environment.” Learning environments based on the SOLE philosophy are needs based and student driven.  The SOLE philosophy is equally applicable for K-16 models too, but the entrenched interests that promote steerage tier practices are resistant to change and unlikely to loosen their grip given the profitability of the standardized assessment testing methods currently in place under NCLB.  At present only the wealthy enjoy the choice of enrolling their children in innovative day school environments or traditional rote learning academies.  For the rest, the steerage tier is the only option available.  Thus, for the survivors of third class education, we can offer a more engaging model with SOLE that allows the learners to investigate questions that are interesting and relevant for their lives.  Community based SOLE projects are needed if we are to increase skills in our neediest adult populations.

Some of the key characteristics of a SOLE environment are as follows:

  1. The learning environment is open and oriented toward problem-solving;
  2. Learners determine the methodologies and practices used to both investigate and propose ways to address the question at hand;
  3. Teachers are optional; SOLE environments are based on student led learning communities with teachers in the role of posing interesting questions for individuals/teams.  While teacher led environments may be more efficient, especially for those who are learning to use technology, the “grandmother” method seems to work equally as well to promote proficiency level skills.

Check out Sugata Mitra’s talk on SOLE environments from TED.com:

Hackschooling and the Woeful American Approach to Education

Hackschooling is a new term that proponents of democratic education are using to describe alternate modes of K-12 schooling.  For examples see the Sudbury Valley Day School or the best summary of the new approach as outlined by 13 year-old Logan LaPlante.  Logan gives me hope for the future, but most kids do not because they are trapped in our long dead public schools. Big thanks to Social Consciousness for posting this initially. 😎

Check out Logan’s TEDx talk and then think about similar 13 year olds that you know.

It is rare to meet an articulate 13 year old from the public school system, even more rare at the college level. After teaching for 17 years at the college level, I lament that those ever important K-12 years are lost as we imprison our kids in dead educational institutions.  Their fatal wound is most aptly characterized by two acronyms: NCLB and AYP, the stalwarts of American dysfunction in education.

Our schools are dead because we do not pursue best practices in curriculum design, individualized learning, technology or teacher recruitment/retention. We are so far behind the routine practices of the top ten countries that I doubt we will ever catch up. To be clear the top ten countries educate their children for creativity, happiness, innovation and proficiency in a wide-range of subjects. Think about this: 60-80% of American college students require remedial courses to teach material that was originally presented at the 6th grade level. In my own experience, American students were the least creative, poor critical thinkers and totally unprepared to perform well in college because of the lack of critical preparation in K-12 schools.

The problems are numerous. First, professionals creating curriculum in the United States lack a realistic understanding of learning research, best practices and individualized learning/assessment plans. Most have never taught in the classroom at all. Yet, these same individuals often have degrees in curriculum design with a total lack of teaching experience. That’s right; they never worked in a classroom and cannot fathom the myriad of learning styles and individuals that make up a learning community. They design content only without understanding how teachers, students and content work together.

The Finnish system seems ideal, if only someone in a position to influence American education had classroom experience, perhaps we too could implement a similar model. However, as long as we cling to “core curriculum,” deny teachers autonomy, trap students in classrooms where surviving until retirement is the sole motivator for teachers, then our kids are doomed to a third world future via the pursuit of below average mediocrity in education.

The point: we could be the best, but we have settled for “17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math on a respected exam known as the Programme for International Student Assessment. Also known as PISA. The test is given to a representative sample of 15-year-olds in participating developed countries every three years. In 2009, Finland’s students scored third in reading, sixth in math and second in science out of 65 countries that participated in the exam.”1

We are failing our kids miserably where real education counts.  The people to blame: not the teachers, but the administrators and politicians who have zero understanding of real education, but yet send their kids to private schools that resemble the Finnish model.

1 Richards, Erin. “Finland puts bar high for teachers, kids’ well-being” Journal Sentinel .  Published on November 26, 2011.  Accessed online April 23, 2013 @ http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/finland-puts-bar-high-for-teachers-kids-wellbeing-qa2tbfr-134546548.html

Open-source texts for K-12 @ Curriki

Since I’ve previously written about open source publishing and open access for scholarly resources,  I thought it would be interesting to follow a thread discussing open source curricula in the K-12 arena.  In an NYT article Ashlee Vance chronicles the slow adoption of open source resources explaining the trend as multi-faceted, and yet again, held up by the ridiculous preeminence of the California and Texas text approval processes.1 Since those processes are motivated purely by economic and political concerns rather than those having to do with sound pedagogical practices or the highest educational standards,  the California and Texas systems have warped the publishing of educational materials for the worse.  Nevertheless,  publishers and powerful school boards are loathe to cede ground and open source adoption in the U.S.  is moving at a snail’s pace.    The other components working against rapid development and deployment are:

  1. A lack of funding for infrastructure and expertise,
  2. Traditional publishers who have a tight grip on this $8-15 billion/year industry,
  3. Few assessment tools to measure the effectiveness of open source materials

Curriki is a company committed to addressing these concerns and linking the constituencies that have something to offer: open source content developers (e.g., retired teachers who write curricula), teachers willing to try open source materials in their classes to meet state standards for NCLB, and assessment developers who can create metrics and KPIs that will compare the performance of students who have used open source versus proprietary resources to master subject material.

I support the open source movement because it provides  access to materials for students who languish in classrooms that haven’t had the money for texts in the last 10-20 years.  It allows for rapid innovation of materials and an exchange between professionals to create a quality pool of  “best practices”  and  ready resources for teachers struggling to teach ever larger classes to perform on standardized evaluations.  Whether the last goal is desirable, is entirely beside the point insofar as legislation mandates that schools meet standards or else. The reality on the ground is that teachers are compelled to guarantee AYP (adequate yearly progress) and are often saddled with dated, inadequate curricula and resources that haven’t kept up with standards in technology.   Finally, K-12 open source delivers on one of the great promises of the Internet,  to democratize knowledge.

The significance of opening access to quality resources cannot be understated.  States with limited budgets are not  upgrading hardware, software or text resources during this recession.  Open source contributions provide a low-cost alternative with a constantly evolving pipeline of resources that can be accessed by anyone at any time.  Organizing the material is another matter, but the situation also offers  an advantage because instead of mandating lesson plans sequenced to the NCLB standards, teachers can exercise autonomy and tailor lesson plans/presentations to meet the needs of their students.   While  meeting NCLB standards and being creative should not be mutually exclusive, some low performing schools have been forced to adopt straightjacket approaches in order to satisfy policy makers, school boards, etc.  Teachers can often assess the needs of their students in weeks, but the curricula they have access to is  dated, ineffective,  and full of unresponsive presentations via texts that are bloated and wordy.  While some open source materials may share these undesirble attributes, the proliferation of open source resources should also provide lesson plans that are creative and engaging.

Finally, open source materials allow for the possibility of open exchange between educators and the organic establishment of  new materials arising from a best practices, expert rated community.  Materials submitted to Curriki are rated by professionals who teach the subjects in question.  Teachers know what works; those who have extensive experience are often in a good position to evaluate the design of curricula and its possibilities for delivering on the educational objectives identified.  Open source presentations can also be reverse engineered to specify pedagogic methods that either help/hinder student learning with the aim of refining the beneficial techniques.

For all of the above reasons and more,  I say three cheers for open source.


1 For the full NYT article, see Vance, Ashlee. $200 Textbook vs. Free. You Do the Math. New York Times, Sunday Edition.  2 August 2010, accessed @ http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/technology/01ping.html?ref=technology on 8/2/2010.