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The 81 Percent Solution

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If, as the Bible tells us, "Without vision, the people perish,'' then the future of learning in America ought to be secure. We're all but awash in visions for restructuring education, and more are being floated every day on a rising tide of foundation and federal funding.

The idea seems to be: "Let's have lots of competing visions for 'break the mold' schools, and the best will prevail.'' And by 2000 American education will be the best in the world.

Will such educational Darwinism work? Don't bet on it.

Don't bet on it particularly if the focus of these well-meant, but nonetheless myopic, visions continues to be on improving schools. Working to improve schools without also working to improve each community's overall "learning ecology'' (see Herman Niebuhr Jr.'s 1984 book, Revitalizing American Learning) is more than myopic, it is a recipe for frustration and failure. Avoiding this will require us to transform our narrow, school-based model of learning into what Mr. Niebuhr calls "a new learning paradigm'' based on the obvious, but seldom acted-upon truth that "learning happens in many settings, and each setting needs to be strengthened.'' Once we become committed to acting on this truth, we face three realities:

  • Schools can't do everything a community expects of them.
  • In the course of a year, kids spend only 19 percent of their potential learning time in school.
  • What many kids are learning--or failing to learn--during the 81 percent of their time outside of school is affecting their lives in ways over which their schools, their communities, their families, and they themselves seem to demonstrate little control.

The largest segment of the 81 percent of kids' outside-of-school time is the well-documented 25 percent they devote to TV watching and video-game playing. To that must be added the very real, but difficult-to-document time kids spend talking about, trying to avoid--and/or engaging in--the violence, drugs, unsafe sex, and other social illnesses ubiquitous within those media.

These figures challenge communities, schools, and families to countervail the "learning'' being delivered daily by these media to the most learning-available, media-engaged members of our communities. The challenge is one of transforming this 81 percent problem into an 81 percent solution.

The vision of educational renewal we need must be clear, broad, and practical enough to get community leaders, organizations, and ordinary people working together to achieve it. It is a vision of lifelong learning as the basis of personal and economic growth, social development, and community problem-solving. Achieving this quality of lifelong learning means beginning as early as possible with "life wide'' learning that helps interconnect all aspects of a child's local learning ecology--school, home, neighborhood and community youth agencies, libraries, religious organizations, and family-support agencies. Achieving such ambitious ecological interconnectedness in the midst of today's disconnected community life is the challenge at the core of our 81 percent, media-promulgated problem. Yet, we may find that there is a valid media-based response that can help us shape a solution. The medium we need to consider is communitywide telecomputing.

If citizens can find the will to work together to rebuild their communities for learning, they will find communitywide telecomputing to be a more than adequate tool to help with the job. There are readily available, user-friendly, and affordable community-telecomputing tools that can facilitate development of locally managed human and electronic networks for learning and information.

The vision I urge is one of locally managed, communitywide, people-driven electronic networks for learning and information that are designed by and for local citizens to reflect their own needs. It is a vision of local networks capable of spanning and interconnecting all community interests and ages: from early-childhood and adult literacy to the study of literature; from family and financial planning to child-rearing and parenting; from space exploration to race relations and mediation; from mathematics and physics to physical fitness; from teacher, and other career, retraining opportunities to community and economic development; from starting a business to studying a foreign language.

These local networks would naturally extend to the exchange of information related to local health and human services, employment, and crime prevention, both on a neighborhood and a communitywide level. For every hour spent traveling, and paying tolls on, the nation's emerging information superhighway, local "telecomputers'' may well find themselves spending more time, and a lot less money, learning and gaining information from a surprising array of community-based information, learning, and earning resources. Many of these resources may be in the form of people met on their town's "electronic main street.'' Yes, we live in a global village, but our own villages, towns, and cities need to rebuild a sense of local community. In doing so, they'll be helping re-establish a meaning of community that has been badly eroded in our time: community as the foundation for common concern, social order, and commonwealth.

Without communitywide commitment and vision, and without the communication technology to help achieve it, there is little hope of broadening the view of our nation's 16,000 school-district-based communities. And unless they manage to broaden their view beyond a focus on the cost and quality of schools, they will soon be facing a far greater social-economic cost: the cost of failing to provide community access to lifelong learning and earning power for all children and their families.

The job before us is to create positive at-home and out-in-the-community learning experiences that extend and connect in-school learning to the world. It is also to reduce the power of the negative learning that is polluting so many young lives. Too often the local learning ecology is as stressed and as toxic as the natural ecology.

Schools, alone, can't do the cleanup job. In many communities where schools were once bases of community stability, schools are now at a breaking point. They're being broken not by "break the mold'' thinking, however, but by a formidable array of problems that run the gamut from unequal property-tax-based financing to latchkey family life. To expect schools to function effectively in the midst of an array of negative, outside-of-school messages is to expect them to teach a level of personal discernment and self-defense that is beyond their capabilities.

For students, these messages often translate to: "It's cool to learn how to beat the system.'' "You don't have to produce quality work to graduate.'' "It's more important to get a Macjob after school to earn a car than to do a good job in school and learn a career.'' Or, as one 16-year-old drug dealer told a New York Times reporter: "School was corny. I was smart, I learned quick, but I got bored ... I could be out making money.'' Where does he expect to be in five years? "Dead or in jail.''

The deep and systemic problems encapsulated in such a statement are destroying the notion of community and beleaguering schools. Yet we somehow still expect schools to deal with, even solve, these larger-than-school-life problems. Our 16-year-old drug dealer is no exception. "I know I need education,'' he told the Times, "so if I get caught and do a couple of years, I'll come out and go back to school.''

Like this 16-year-old, there's a part of all of us that can't help feeling, or hoping, that schools somehow can actually solve these systemic, community-generated problems. All they need to do is break the mold, think systemically, and act boldly!

But why aren't break-the-mold, market-driven schools, with higher standards, longer school days, and longer school years, with parental choice and vouchers, solutions to our problems? Here are two reasons: (1) These "solutions'' are too costly; and (2) they represent limited logical, additive thinking about education and schools, rather than systemic, ecological thinking about learning.ÿFDÄÄ

Learning happens, ecologically, in many settings during the 81 percent of children's nonschool time, and what they are learning can be systemically enhanced, "tech-ecologically,'' via telecomputing, quite cost-effectively.

How could this be? Where would all the home computers come from? What about the families that can't afford them? Wouldn't this just widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots?

All of these are reasonable questions. But there are equally reasonable answers. For instance:

  • The majority of the 31 million--and growing--American households that currently own at least one computer are also among the 28-plus million households with school-age kids. This means that a surprising number of kids have--or soon will have--access to computers at home.
  • Of the 150 million computers currently being used in American businesses, at least 10 percent are expected to be replaced with faster, more sophisticated machines each year. This amounts to enough used computers to supply every low-income household in every community willing to commit to providing universal and equitable-access communitywide telecomputing. (Suggested incentives: a business tax credit, good public relations, and the chance to help "level the learning field'' for the nation's poorer children--especially for the homes, or after-school centers, populated by the country's 5.2 million Chapter 1 youngsters.)

There would be distribution and telephone-line costs to be solved, but if the will can be mustered, these problems can be mastered. Many organizations--the United Way, the National Guard, Rotary International, etcÿFDÄÄ.--could help with distribution. As for telephone costs, early in this century, when the phone company was challenged to provide universal, equitable phone access, phone service in poor and rural communities was liberally subsidized by the young industry. Yet today we hear little from the industry giants vying to build the national information superhighway about assuring that it won't become an inaccessible toll road as far as poor families are concerned. Thankfully, Vice President Gore seems commited to getting the new information industry to address this issue.

At present, I know of only one communitywide commitment to the 81 percent solution. It's a countywide, locally grown effort in Indian River County, Fla. ThisÿFDÄÄ effort was launched three years ago under the initial leadership of the superintendent of schools who, with other community leaders, established a local not-for-profit education foundation. The foundation, along with businesses, libraries, and social-service agencies, is providing the leadership needed to engage other community organizations, parents, and interested citizens. A major emphasis of this effort is to get computers into homes and community centers in low-income neighborhoods.

At the heart of the "Indian River idea'' is a uniquely positive, locally managed approach to communitywide telecomputing called the Indian River Electronic Network for Education (IRENE). During the last two years IRENE has grown from one computer, one modem, and $250 for community bulletin-board software into a countywide electronic network of school, home, business, library, and public-agency users in the thousands. One of the most impressive results of the communitywide, at-home use ofIRENE is a 40 percent reduction in at-home TV viewing by school kids. And the at-home use of the network is growing so rapidly that its capacity is being expanded constantly in response to user (especially student) demand. This demand is expected to increase further as a result of the IRENE network's recent link-up with the Internet, and by the expansion of the community's commitment to increase access for low-income households.

On a recent evening visit to one such household, I was told by a young single mother of three boys how, in addition to her sons' nightly use of IRENE, she uses it while they're at school to develop marketable skills and to keep in touch with what's going on in the community. Later that evening, in an affluent home, a grateful father confided that IRENE has ended his kids' "addiction to the Nintendo drug.''

These are typical results of this pioneering cooperative, grassroots undertaking which, although still in its infancy, has made such progress that other communities in Florida and elsewhere are becoming increasingly interested in how to rebuild their own communities for learning.

Meanwhile, Indian River County moves steadfastly toward its goal of electronically networking its 18 schools and neighborhoods with over 20,000 homes, 3,000 businesses, community centers, churches, and public libraries, as well as public-health and service agencies (including the police) into a countywide community for learning dedicated to developing self-directed, cooperative learners of all ages--preschoolers to senior citizens.

Already, many businesses throughout the county are beginning to use IRENE to communicate with each other ("it ends telephone tag'') and with at-homeworkers and prospective employees. Local environmentalists are developing on-line forums to air local issues, and similar uses are being developed by health-care agencies, social-services organizations, and other groups.

Paralleling this growth of communitywide electronic networking is the development of face-to-face people networks of business leaders, public officials, and retirees, many of whom report making new friends on IRENE (some of whom are apt to ask for help with homework).

As this type of cooperative, communitywide telecomputing effort stimulates others like it, it is possible to envision networks of "community telecomputing cooperatives'' developing in various regions of the country. But this can happen only if a critical mass of American communities find enough local leadership and energy to generate and sustain the kind of effort I have described. I am optimistic that this leadership can and will emerge, once people realize the potential the enterprise holds for their communities. There seem to be people everywhere who, once motivated by an appropriate vision of what ought to be, are quite capable of getting the job done. What's essential with this vision is that community leadership make its priority learning, and not "education.''

The growth of local telecomputing cooperatives is a key to "the 81 percent solution.'' Never before has it been as important as it is now for us to know that we are what we learn. We need to correct our collective myopia about where, when, and how to improve learning--not just in schools, but in our society. The first step toward corrective action will be to achieve a fuller, more conscious awareness of the complex learning ecology in which we all exist and from which we--and more importantly our children--are learning every day and in every way.

P. Kenneth Komoski is the executive director of the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE) Institute in Hampton Bays, N.Y.

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