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Digital Learning Offers U.S. a Path Out of Its 19th-Century Mold

In the 30th anniversary year of the landmark report on U.S. education failure, “A Nation at Risk,” I really think there’s hope — at long, long last — for a turnaround.

The hope lies in digital learning, in new schools that challenge the old kind and in the adoption by 45 states of a “core curriculum” whereby kids across the country will be taught what they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Last month, I saw some of the bright (potential) future on display in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the Education Innovation Summit, where hundreds of for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs displayed dazzling new techniques and devices for bringing K-12 education out of the 19th century.

It’s also encouraging that at least one of the teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers, is gradually accepting the idea that educators should be judged and at least partly compensated on the basis of their students’ progress.

Alas, American K-12 schools still are miles from where they need to be — as demonstrated in the latest of literally thousands of reports written since “A Nation at Risk” famously asserted that if a foreign nation imposed our school system on us, we would regard it as an act of war.

Ever since 1983, education reformers have been at war with advocates of the status quo — especially the unions, but also public school bureaucracies — over, among other things, whether schools can be expected to overcome the burdens that poverty puts on kids.

Top charter schools such as Kipp Academies long ago showed that good teaching and high expectations could help the poorest kids succeed. There just aren’t enough of them to help all the kids and parents who want them.

This new report, from the reform group America Achieves, now shows that American 15-year-olds, even in the second-highest quarter of family income (average, $90,000 a year), rank 15th in science among 32 industrialized countries, 24th in math and 17th in reading.

But that study also showed that middle-class high schools such as Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va., and poverty schools such as North Star Academy in Newark, N.J., can match the highest-ranked academic performers in the world — Shanghai, China and Finland.

The great news from Scottsdale — you can follow it on — is that digital technology is coming to the rescue with dazzling educational programs such as Dreambox, which tutors kids in math and makes it fun; Teachscape, which helps teachers improve their classroom performance (disclosure: my wife is on its board); and Accelerated Reader, which helps kids learn to read.

More on these in my next post.

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