Making U.S. Education Right: Using Data and Technology

“Education is THE most important thing to get right,” says former Chairman of Microsoft, Bill Gates. This was in reference to major necessary improvements the U.S. government needs to focus on in the near future. But, what is it that makes the improvement of education in the U.S. so vital? After all, we are the worldwide leader in money and power and likely near the top in education too; or are we?

To tell you the truth, we’re behind in education, and by no small margin. Over 30% of U.S. children never even finish high school. And for minorities, you can bring that percentage up to over 50%- a devastating statistic. Even if you do happen to graduate from high school, if you come from a low income family, not only is it highly unlikely that you’ll go to college and graduate, it’s actually much more likely that jail is your pathway. When reviewing those options, the latter does not seem fair.

So, the real question Bill has in store for the us is, “how do you make education better?” The U.S. has spent much money and attention towards investing in smaller schools, more scholarships, new libraries and resources, and much more. However, while all those perks are quite nice and do in fact harvest better results, the real key factor is providing quality teachers- the gateway, or should I say “Bill Gate’s way,” yielding a healthier and more effective education. But, a problem has arisen. We haven’t yet developed a true way to discover those teachers and perpetuate their pedagogies throughout our schools. But, as Bill recommends, the answer lies within two strategies: data and technology.

According to his statistics, the top quartile of teachers are increasing class performance by over 10% per year on tests, while the bottom quartile are nearly a detriment to their students. In fact, with the use of the Internet and it’s versatility of resources, the average student can actually find out detailed, scholarly information about nearly anything- from the history of the ballpoint pen to the assassination of MLK, Jr. To take a deeper look into how simple it is for students to accomplish this, take a gander at the following video by Mark Prensky, particularly starting at minute 2:36, lasting about 2 minutes total:

As was seen in the video, technology allows students to research and discover anything that fascinates them, but that’s only one small step in solving the problem. As I mentioned before, we need to analyze and deeply evaluate our teachers, otherwise we’re keeping the old, deadweight tenured teachers and scrapping the young, highly motivated, and student-relatable teachers- the ones that truly make a difference. To do so, schools can model their evaluations off of KIPP Charter Schools, KIPP standing for “Knowledge is Power.” They do something differently from the rest of the pack. They are constantly taking teacher data, numerous evaluations, and are deeply engaged in making teachers better. They check with students who aren’t paying attention and they stay fast-paced, dynamic, and energized. A prime example of an outstanding teacher that exemplifies those characteristics is Mr. Williams, a D.C. teacher who makes it his goal to stay enthused and excited and relay that energy to his students. Please take a look at the following article and look for the qualities and characteristics he portrays to his students: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/what-makes-a-great-teacher/307841/

The main problem Mr. Gates highlights in his speech is the fact that teachers across the board aren’t analyzed enough and that when they are, they’re given notice in advance, which is something that really “grinds my gears.” For example, I remember having some lame teachers (to put it nicely) that would never engage students, teach for less than half the period, and lounge around for the remainder of class. My principal would contact them weeks ahead and say, “Hey lame guy, I’ll be in your class on x day to analyze your classroom and teaching strategies,” to which my teacher would respond, “Oh joy, I’ll see you then!” You may look at this and say to yourself, “hey, not too shabby. At least they’re actively evaluating the teacher annually.” However, it’s simply a cop-out method that prepares that lame teacher for a splendidly interactive lecture. I remember having those teachers prepare fun group work, games, slide shows, and the like, asking for everyone to participate, making the teach glow and smile from ear to ear. The principal would smile, look at the class, and think to himself, “my, what a dedicated teacher!” This has got to stop. These teachers should be evaluated monthly, and in some cases, weekly. There should be a defined set of criteria to meet and tangible results the observers want to see satisfied and if not met, the teacher should be scrapped and replaced with one who will satisfy those needs. Another method to curing this disease is a combination of both use of technology and data collection.

Gates offered a unique idea that he feels can be highly useful and practical. He believes cameras should be placed in classrooms to review in detail and real time exactly what the teachers are doing in class. Now, this may sound a little “big government” to many and somewhat invasive of privacy, but we’re talking public education- one of the most, or should be, transparent careers. We need to know how our students are doing and how our teachers are preparing them so we can change the 20% of students who are becoming successful revolutionists of our time into 70 or 80 or hopefully 100% of all students. His idea includes taping parts of the day and showing them in group-discussions to other co-teachers. This way, teachers can say, “here’s a video of how I did something well that the students enjoyed and learned from” or “here’s a strategy I utilized that simply did not work.”  Teachers can discuss all of their successes and failures together and actually show their demonstrations, rather than discuss them in retrospect. Additionally, he suggested that teachers can tape parts of discussion and lecture that worked well, place them on DVDs and offer them to students who are struggling in any given area. The student can then take it home, watch, rewind, pause, or fast-forward and review the methods at their own pace in their own setting- an idea that I believe could revolutionize teaching as we know it.

As we’ve seen, there are certainly obstacles and holes in our educational system, but fortunately, there are simple and intuitive strategies to combat those adversities. Through evaluating and analyzing teachers regularly to offering technological resources (like cameras and DVDs), we can soon start on the track to beating nations like Finland and entire continents like Asia. Once we combine technology and data into all classrooms from San Diego to NYC, we can change “Education is the most important thing to get right” into “Education is the thing we always get right.”

To see the TED Talks video, Bill Gates: Mosquitos, malaria, and Education, please click the link below and go ahead to the 8 minute mark and watch until the video ends (12-minutes total)

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