Education: A Reality Check

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Education: A Reality Check

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A confluence of four issues in education makes this a perfect time to embark on a journey of bringing neuroscience to the classroom.

1) There is no more money (www.cbo.gov). The days of policymakers reflexively funding educators’ promises to fix the ills of education with more of what they have done in the past are over. More funding has not provided the desired outcomes for our children. But it is possible to do better with less. The first school district in the world to mandate a comprehensive digital neuroscience-based program district-wide was able to cut their special education budget by 50% and reduce their student population classified as special education by 62%.

2) There is a renewed focus on teacher proficiency (www.eric.ed.gov). Our children need good teachers, but they also need the ability to learn at the level required to meet standards.  There is a direct relationship between a teacher’s ability to teach and a student’s ability to learn. In too many cases, students arrive in their classrooms without the necessary learning capacity. What would we do to teacher proficiency if we delivered a classroom full of students “better prepared to learn?”

3) Accountability(www.edaccountability.org)  is the close ally of teacher proficiency these days and accountability is being measured as college- and career-readiness for every student. By that measure, the educational system has been brought to account and is failing. Today less than a third of our school children can comprehend and apply fourth grade work in fourth grade. Less than 15% of African Americans, (according to Garner, Stein & Jacobs, 1997) and less that 18% of Latinos can comprehend and apply fourth grade material in fourth grade. The challenge for minority populations is not a lack of natural ability, but a lack of developed learning capacity associated with low socio-economic status (SES) which disproportionately characterizes those populations in the U.S.  By addressing both their underdeveloped learning capacity through neuroscience-based cognitive development and their need for good teaching and good curriculum, one school district serving low-SES students went from a non-recognized district to the seventh highest performing district in their state.   To us that is real accountability.

4) The new Common Core State Standards, http://www.corestandards.org emphasize developing students’ ability to think, reason and problem-solve. This is key because today what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.  This requires a different kind of education reform.  As Sir Ken Robinson explains in Changing Education Paradigms (www.YouTube.com/Sirkenrobinson), education reform has focused on the external factors—better buildings, new technology, curriculum, teachers, safer environments, etc.  All are important issues to be sure, but none of them focuses on the student. That’s where neuroscience comes in to help us raise students’ capacity to learn and to ensure that all the external factors tie together to raise performance.

Not only can neuroscience help, it is likely essential.  The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), in The Road Less Traveled, makes it clear that if educators do not begin to incorporate the developmental sciences into the classroom, we will never close the achievement gap.

What is at stake?  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Corporation (OECD), raising U.S. students’ scores on the PISA to minimum proficiency will uncover $72 trillion dollars of GDP (www.nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa). The entire world’s GDP is only $65 trillion, with $16 trillion of that in the U.S. If our society can figure this out, then it makes all economic discussions moot.

As Tony Wagner, Education Innovation Fellow at Harvard University makes so clear, not getting education right for our children is the greatest challenge facing our society today. Without a population prepared to meet the demands of a globally competitive information-age workplace, we will not continue to be the great society we once believed ourselves to be.  It is time for the scientific community, the education community and the business community to join hands and work together through this journey of bringing neuroscience to the classroom with a laser focus on students and their capacity to learn.  Closing the achievement gap is both a matter of social justice and economic reality.  It can be closed, but we have to have a different focus … the student.