Opinion
Education Opinion

Despite Bad News, Progress is Possible

By Tom Vander Ark — December 26, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I have a hard time watching evening news--especially in the last few weeks--the headlines are hard to swallow. You can’t help but assume that things are
getting worse. It’s depressing. But the news doesn’t give you an accurate picture of the long term trends that are making life better for more people on
this planet.

Steven Johnson, speaking on CNN
asks, “Over the past two decades, what have the U.S. trends been for the following important measures of social health: high school dropout rates, college
enrollment, juvenile crime, drunken driving, traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita gasoline consumption, workplace injuries, air
pollution, divorce, male-female wage equality, charitable giving, voter turnout, per capita GDP, and teen pregnancy?”

The answer for all of them is the same: “The trend is positive. Almost all those varied metrics of social wellness have improved by more than 20 percent
over the past two decades.” Johnson continues, “Americans enjoy longer, healthier lives in more stable families and communities than we did 20 years ago.
But other than the crime trends, these facts are rarely reported or shared via word-of-mouth channels.”

The media is biased toward negative and extreme events. That’s certainly the case in education, even quality trade pubs don’t adequately report on
incremental progress and underlying trends. Horrible events monopolize media coverage.

Johnson’s new book,

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

is an optimistic view of the future. While he’s a more polished writer with a broader scope, in my book and blog I try to do the same for learning.

The basic tool set of learning is getting better -- fast! It’s so much easier to learn now than it was 20 years ago (pre web). It’s so much easier to learn
now than five years ago (pre smartphone and tablet). And we’re just beginning to understand the power of adaptive learning tools, of special needs tools,
and of language acquisition tools.

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are an example of how technology can extend the reach of great teachers while extending opportunity to people
worldwide. Think about it: The best professors in the world are now available for free to anyone on the planet with a broadband connection; that’s just
amazing!

What about relationships? Progress on personalized learning can mean more quality time with a teacher. School of One
(powered by New Classrooms) is a great example of using adaptive learning and dynamic scheduling to create more time
for small group instruction. The same is true at KIPP Empower. Good technology improves learning and builds build community.

The potential to improve working conditions and career options for learning professionals is so exciting. Blended schools are staffed by teams that can
better support new teachers and better utilize paraprofessionals. Distributed workforce strategies are making it possible for specialists to live and work
anywhere anytime (PresenceLearning and Connections Education offer online speech therapy).

Recently on Facebook, people that I really respect were trashing “hungry for-profit companies.” Same mantra on NPR. Those “hungry companies” are putting up
risk capital to build new tools that will power new schools and significantly improve achievement and completion rates in this country and help extend
access to hundreds of millions of young people worldwide. Private enterprise has the ability to aggregate and deploy return seeking capital -- something
governments and nonprofits aren’t equipped to do -- and that is good for producing and scaling innovation.

Johnson notes that improvements in health come from a “complex web of forces.” That will be true of better learning as well. We need to get smart about
using the right form of capital for the right job. The big advances in learning will often come as a result of public-private partnerships where government
agencies set ambitious goals, when philanthropy encourages long term thinking and extracts risk, and when private enterprise produces innovation--watch NYC iZone for more good examples of this in 2013

Real college and career ready standards for (nearly) all kids in this country is a really important step toward more equitable outcomes. It also frames a
new opportunity and improves the ability to share content, tools, data, and ideas. Companies that I work with are creating valuable free core applications
that are making it easier and cheaper to personalize learning. The combination or clear common standards and better tools creates new opportunity for
districts--especially RTTD winners (like Puget Sound ESD!)--and school networks and states to work together on big solutions.

After a horrible month of news, remember the broader trends are in the right direction -- things are getting better for you and for your kids. We have the
best chance ever to make big gains in this decade. We have the best chance ever to reach kids that have never had a chance.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Hundreds of Conn. Bus Drivers Threaten to Walk Off the Job Over Vaccine Mandate
More than 200 school bus drivers could walk off the job in response to a vaccination mandate that goes into effect Monday.
1 min read
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk.
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk. <br/>
Keith Srakocic/AP Photo
Education Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)