A High-Tech Fix for Broken Schools
By JUAN WILLIAMS
Mooresville, N.C., is best known as "Race City, U.S.A.," home of Nascar. But these days Mooresville is leading the nation in a different way—by using digital technology to improve public education.
"Fixing Our Schools," a documentary I am hosting for the Fox News Channel this Sunday, looks at how digital learning is being used by schools like those in Mooresville to help fix our broken education system.
Our schools are undoubtedly in crisis. Prize-winning documentaries such as "Waiting for 'Superman'" have revealed the terrible cost of losing young minds to failing schools. Dropout rates are particularly high among minority children in urban schools. But even parents in the best suburban schools are alarmed by the fact that the U.S. now ranks 30th world-wide in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in literacy.
This is why the modestly funded schools in Mooresville are drawing national attention. The school district ranks 100th out of 115 school districts in North Carolina on per-pupil spending. But in the last 10 years, its test scores have pushed it from a middling rank among North Carolina's school districts to a tie for second place.
Three years ago, 73% of Mooresville's students tested as proficient in math, reading and science. Today, 89% are proficient in those subjects.
The big change in Mooresville began when Superintendent Mark Edwards took the radical step of cutting back on teachers and using the money to give every student from third grade through high school a laptop computer.
All of their textbooks, notes, learning materials and assignments are computerized, allowing teachers and parents to track their progress in real time. If a student is struggling, their computer-learning program can be adjusted to meet their needs and get them back up to speed. And the best students no longer wait on slow students to catch up. Top students are constantly pushed to their limits by new curricular material on their laptops.
Nearly every phase of students' education is a data-point that can be tracked, analyzed and compared with their peers. Thanks to the data system, Mr. Edwards says, "our teachers are better informed, our parents are better informed, and our students are understanding what they're doing and why they're doing it." He notes, by the way, that digital learning hasn't increased costs.
Some 600 miles north of Moorseville, New York City's "School of One" in Brooklyn has had similar success with a digital-learning program. The mathematics-centered middle school has reported significant gains in the test scores of its students since it was founded in 2009. Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City public schools, helped initiate the program and is now one of the leading proponents for digital learning. (Mr. Klein is CEO of Amplify, News Corp.'s educational division. News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal.)
"Think about how different the world is today in terms of the media, in terms of medicine, in terms of the way people really experience their lives, and education is stuck in a 19th-century model," Mr. Klein explains. "So I'm convinced that we can [use computers to] change the way we educate our kids." He adds that the computers don't remove the need for good teachers but help "teachers do their work in a much more effective way."
In Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush pioneered large-scale digital learning as part of his education-reform efforts. "If you want to take an [advanced placement] class, you can do this online, and people flock to that opportunity. So, it has improved learning and they don't get paid unless the course is complete," Mr. Bush says. "Imagine if the public schools accepted that idea. You would have a lot more children gaining the power of knowledge."
Some critics charge that digital learning is a boondoggle, a way for the private companies that make the technology to profit by selling their products to school districts. Messrs. Klein and Bush respond that we must support new ideas and budding solutions that show promise to fix schools—regardless of their origins.
Mr. Bush puts it this way: "If it's for-profit or not-for-profit or it's developed by the schools inside a district or by teachers inside of schools, does it matter?"
The bottom line is that bringing more technology into the classroom shows tremendous promise to improve schools. And any doubters should take a look at the little school district now speeding along in Mooresville.
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