Education and America's Third World

The challenges facing cities like Baltimore are not just about policing and the complicated issues of race. There is also the significant challenge caused by a lack of opportunity.  This is a challenge that faces not just urban areas like Baltimore and Newark, but includes rural areas in Appalachia and the Deep South. It’s a challenge that must be addressed across America.

The more affluent and economically driven areas of America are providing opportunities for growth, leaving behind the rest of the country. And the urgent question we must ask ourselves is what we can do to close the gap.

I think, at a time like this, we have to look at America as a still-emerging nation. In many respects, this is a literal comparison. Our poorest areas share so many characteristics with those of emerging nations.

They lack major elements of social and economic infrastructure taken for granted in wealthier neighborhoods. In our poorest areas, incidents of infant mortality, illiteracy, and crime are far higher than they should be. A lifetime of poverty and living off the street is often accepted as the fate of the next generation.

For so many, the problems are overwhelming and the opportunities for improvement do not exist.  I remember being challenged by a mother of a teen-aged drug dealer, “My son brings in money to support me.  Why should I take him off the street? What will we have then?”

In situations like this, we can’t wait for gradual and incremental improvements. We need shock therapy. Fortunately, there are models to follow – and emerging market nations prove they exist.

At the dawn of the digital era, most emerging market countries had no meaningful telecommunications infrastructure. They were at risk of being left even further behind.

So they leapfrogged an entire step and went straight to wireless.

By adding towers rather than stringing wires, these nations delivered the mobile information revolution at a fraction of the cost. Today, some of the most mobile-friendly economies are in the developing world. They have used this leap to greatly accelerate mobile applications for health care, commerce and education.

Let’s consider taking the same approach to American opportunity, starting with our education system. Rather than focus on building more schools, or hiring more teachers, let’s decentralize the entire education system.

Just 20 percent of tenth-graders in Alabama’s Mobile County are proficient in math. In Holmes County, Mississippi -- home to the lowest life expectancy in the United States earlier this decade and a center of extreme poverty -- a meager 28 percent of 8th graders are proficient in language arts. In McDowell County, the poorest in West Virginia, only a quarter of high school students can claim reading proficiency according to the latest available test results.

Urban areas with the means to invest heavily in the status quo haven’t seen results, either. Despite spending among the largest sums in the nation on a per-pupil basis, roughly $18,000 per student, Baltimore’s schools achieve an 8th grade reading proficiency rate of 16 percent. On the most recent Maryland school standardized tests, only 29 percent of Baltimore city 8th grade students passed the math portion.

These are pitiful results. What we should do is take the existing infrastructure and open it to far more models for education delivery.

This goes beyond the goal of supporting charter schools and school vouchers, which would allow parents to send their kids to the schools best able to teach.

We should make it possible for students to learn at different paces, either with a teacher present or online.

We should deploy the newly developed online learning modules that are helping students as young as kindergarten learn the basics of coding and the language of computing. We should greatly expand open online courses which have helped so many students gain access to higher education coursework without today’s punishing tuition rates.

The education curriculum should fully integrate employers, who know best what skills are in demand, especially high-skilled manufacturing and other “blue collar” jobs.

Think what these and other kinds of revolutionary schooling opportunities would mean to children in communities that suffer from failed schools. Let’s create connected communities of learners, in virtual classrooms, where the goal isn’t discipline. It’s learning. Especially for the underprivileged and underserved.

These technology-driven models and modules of education already exist, and they work -- because many of them are already being tested by the marketplace. For-profit corporations have created learning modules that teach what people need to learn, without the vast spending and infrastructure of our public education establishment.

The existing establishment may not agree with these changes and may try to block such changes. After all, self-directed and automated learning will cost some teachers and administrators their jobs. But if our goal is to unleash a burst of energy in an otherwise failing school system in Baltimore and across America, we need creativity and not the status quo.

If a failing city school system were a developing nation, we would be more than willing to try this initiative: bypass the institutions that have failed, create new and innovative approaches using the best technology we can find, and follow models that have worked elsewhere.

If this is the approach we have supported in emerging countries, why not apply it at home, in our own challenged communities?

Cheryl F. Halpern, Partner in HQ Creative, LLC a multifaceted digital design firm and Chairman of the Queen of Sheba Foundation, dedicated to educational initiatives in Ethiopia.

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