Let's Hope NOVA's Hopeful View of The School of the Future Is Right

NOVA's The School of the Future is an excellent and intriguing contribution to the Public Broadcast System's back-to-school special reports. The first third of the report hit the right balance between state of the art cognitive science, the long-established body of research on neuroscience which can inform educational practice, and the facts of life in public schools. Pamela Cantor, director of Turnaround for Children, drew on our understanding of neuroplasticity and the damage done by chronic stress to explain why children need schools where they feel safe. Her organization has done great work towards creating positive learning environments where children are praised and benefit from collaborative practices such as "turn and talk," that build on their strengths.

NOVA then synthesized the long-admired work of Carol Dweck on the "growth mindset" with the more recent research of Angela Duckworth on the "psychology of effort." The role of tests, that have no stakes attached, and other science-based learning practices, were explored by Mark McDaniel and Roddy Roediger. (During my last year in the classroom teaching GED to TANF recipients and prison inmates, I incorporated several of their recommendations into my classes, and they seemed to be helpful.) Todd Rose argued for real personalized learning, as opposed to the faux "personalized" learning which strips the human dimension from instruction.

As usual, Sal Kahn emphasized the positive potential of digital learning. Fortunately, NOVA also voiced questions as to whether the technology will be scaled up constructively but, inexplicably, it did not address the single biggest reason why its potential may not be realized. If the brutal, test-driven, charter-driven culture of competition persists, the incentives are to misuse so-called "personalized" learning as a "drill and kill" tool to "juke the stats," or make accountability metrics look better.

My complaint with NOVA's synthesis on the future of learning is that it failed to mention dangerous prospects of charter schools, and other true believers in data, who want to grade students on their "grit," and/or use lessons learned through assessments without stakes to refine their punitive use of testing. The NOVA web site cautions against the simplistic use of neuroscience to inform classroom practice; I wish that disclaimer had made it into the television program.

Clearly, The School of the Future made a special effort to present a united vision of what is possible. The statements made by Russlynn Ali, one of the most incorrigible defenders of No Child Left Untested and of fact-free, blame-the-teacher propaganda, were combined with Linda Darling Hammond, one of the nation's most thoughtful advocates for treating teachers like respected professionals. For better or worse, The School of the Future ignored the recent use of unreliable and invalid bubble-in tests and algorithms to punish individual teachers. A prime illustration of the test and punish mentality of the last two decades was illustrated when Ali's Education Trust ridiculed Education Week as "Sociology Week" for documenting child poverty, as opposed to dumping the blame for the Achievement Gap on teachers.

The best example of the way NOVA, rightly or wrongly, ignored fundamental edu-political differences occurred when Ali, who has campaigned tirelessly to blame individual educators for disappointing outcomes that were rooted in non-school factors, seemed to choose her words carefully and come close to uttering the type of a statement that she has long condemned as "Excuses!" and "Low Expectations!" Ali said, "I'd don't think we'll be able to close the Achievement Gap without learning to engage parents." She was immediately followed by Alejandro Gac-Artigas, of the Springboard Collaborative, who noted that 75% of students' waking hours are outside of school, but we have done "shocking little" to bring them into the learning process or address the summer learning loss.

The last third of the NOVA was inspiring. Only with a second viewing did the disconcerting part of that portion of the report become clear. This segment of The School of the Future featured very little knowledge that is new. It featured children in an affluent school, which had suffered through eight students' suicides, where the kids changed the school culture of competition and stress. It featured the heroism of today's immigrants and inner city kids who persevered just as their predecessors did. It portrayed back-to-the-future pedagogies that stressed emotion, multi-media and multidisciplinary project-based learning. It documented the success of the timeless role of mentorship to close the gender gap, and to use hip-hop as a means of expressive learning.

The School of the Future wisely concludes that we need a sense of community; that adults must help kids learn how to deal with adversity; to nurture individuality and build on students' strengths; to encourage innovation and interweave instruction with real life; and stress relationship-building. Science will better document the truths we've always known about children and learning. Technology might or might not be able to help scale up the building of inner-directed children and adults, but it is caring adults who must nurture kids. Also in contrast with the corporate school reform of the last generation, NOVA's aspirations are based on the belief that people want to learn and school must be a happy place. Sure, the technology will advance but the future must be based on timeless and loving values.

In other words, the future NOVA predicted will be like the best of the learning experiences that my friends and I were privileged to experience in the 1950s and 60s. The techniques it celebrated are more hi-tech than those that my inner city students and I shared from the 1980s and into the second decade of the 21st century. The big difference between NOVA's recommendations, the best teaching of the last generations, and the recent era of test and punish is that it now predicts that holistic instruction will once again be seen as a best practice, not something that teachers must do on the sly in a teach-to-the-test culture.

I'm not saying that traditional, progressive methods of school improvement had solved all the problems that we must once again tackle. We fell far short of making "culturally responsive learning" the norm. But, we were making incremental progress, and we had a worthy goal - extending the same opportunities for a better life in a better world to all kids. After seeing firsthand the terrible damage inflicted by the test, sort, reward, and punish reforms, it's great to see a vision where educational victories would not be paid for by the anguish of children in schools that lost in the cruel competition known as school reform.

Was NOVA wise to adopt a Big Tent approach and ignore the post-NCLB educational civil war?

Frankly, I don't know. My experience tells me that mixed messages are devastating when imposed on under-resourced, under-the-gun schools. I doubt that school systems will fully commit to win-win policies until they are explicitly liberated from the test-driven, competition-driven dictates of recent years. But I could be wrong.

Reflecting on PBS's editorial choices, I wonder whether its eclecticism would have become the dominant school reform model if Linda Darling Hammond had become Secretary of Education 2009. In 2017, we might see her (or a similar leader who will adopt the NOVA approach) put old battles behind us, and unite us in the quest of schools worthy of a 21st century democracy. I strongly believe that we will see a happy future for our kids. The School of the Future makes me feel like it will be sooner rather than later.