We’ve got everything backwards on fixing American education

For the last year, we’ve been focused on getting kids back to school. But even before the pandemic, American students’ reading, science, and math scores had flattened at depressingly low levels.

So if our education system is failing to get the vast majority of our kids to even basic proficiency, why are we rushing to get back to what we were doing before? Isn’t the better question how can we move forward and do better?

The issue of how to do that has obsessed Dr. Benjamin Heuston for his whole career. He’s Executive Director of the Waterford Institute, a Utah-based not-for-profit that conducts early learning research and develops interactive education software for kids in the pre-K-6 range.  He says that rather than looking at remote learning as a problematic stopgap, and something to get rid of ASAP, we need to look at smart ways to leverage technology as the solution.

Listen to the full conversation here:

 

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Matt Robison: This story starts for you with an insight from your father?

Benj Heuston: Yes. He was the head of an elite private girls school in New York City. He turned it into a very formidable prep school to get kids to the Ivy League. But he could see Harlem from his window. And he started to ask himself if what he was doing was actually just deepening the inequities in our educational system. He began to wonder about how to make things not just equal in education, but equitable.

Matt Robison: How can technology do that?

Benj Heuston: We are still using the same basic model that we have used for millennia.  We try to maximize a single teacher across 20 or 30 students. Studies show that teachers are engaged directly with each student for one to two minutes a day per child.  That kind of direct, focused tutoring – the most effective method we have of teaching kids – is available to our kids for only three to six hours a year. Our education system is a mature delivery system. It cannot improve significantly even if you keep putting money into it [because it is still the same basic model]. Technology changes those natural constraints.

Matt Robison:  We have thrown lots of money and reforms at the system. Are we being successful in educating kids under this standard model?

Benj Heuston: Absolutely not. The problem is, we have not given schools and teachers 21st century tools to deal with 21st century problems. The requirements of society and work have gone up. Our approach has not meaningfully changed.

Matt Robison: But I can just hear listeners saying to themselves “wait a minute, we just did remote learning, and it was terrible.” So what is the difference between a well-designed program that leverages technology and what we just saw?

Benj Heuston: No question the last year and half was clearly a fire drill where we tried to throw some technology at the problem and it didn’t work. That’s not surprising. Technology should not be used to replace what works. This is not to replace teachers. We need to utilize technology as a tool to help take the burden off of our teachers, who already are overworked and underpaid.

Matt Robison: What have you found in terms of outcomes from a well-designed online learning platform for young kids?

Benj Heuston: Back in 2013, we went to the homes of one thousand families in the 18 most rural school districts in Utah. I had one district in Utah that is the size of Rhode Island and it has 14 four year olds. I have another one that is larger than the state of Massachusetts, and it has 226 four-year-olds in over 8,000 square miles. Now the teacher is the single most important thing in a child’s experience in education in a classroom. But you simply cannot bring all those rural kids together into classrooms. So you have to go to them. Sometimes we brought computers, Internet, even satellite internet. Sometimes we were erecting solar power to get electricity to kids on Indian reservations.

And what we found was that the children arrived at school ready to read. We advanced them by about a third to half of a year’s worth of learning just using the program 15 minutes a day. It was like having an interactive tutor in their home.

Matt Robison: What about urban settings? Or in districts with a majority of racial and ethnic minorities?

Benj Heuston: When the pandemic hit, in a matter of weeks, we spun up a program for over 13,000 families across nine different states, shipped them computers, and got them Internet. We did coaching and training for the parents. We did it in multiple languages and we did it on the Navajo Nation reservation.

Look, we’re not the only ones in the world that know how to use technology to help kids. There are lots of other wonderful programs out there.  But I can only speak to our data. Our data are showing that, on average, kids coming out of our program are reading as if they’re already midway or towards the end of kindergarten in their abilities. And this is for those disadvantaged populations.

Matt Robison: What would success look like in your mind?

Benj Heuston: Moving from just getting everyone the same thing to getting kids exactly what they need. Testing shows that educational progress has been essentially flat for 40 years. Our system is only working for a third of our kids. Success means we make it work for the other two thirds too.

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