In all the hubbub about the election and the issues that will decide it, one lingering challenge to America's future has been pushed aside. I'm talking about our educational crisis.
Yes, I know that American universities are still the best. I know that America's high tech companies are still the most innovative and entrepreneurial. But the sad truth is that the very companies that have achieved that status cannot find enough workers in America to staff their growth. Many high-tech jobs have gone overseas, not because trained workers there are cheaper, but simply because trained workers there are there, period. Currently, well over a million high-tech jobs in America are going begging.
Last week, in Newark, N.J., I saw a program going forward that I believe will be the way out of this trap. At Malcom X Shabazz High School, I watched two classes in advanced placement physics being taught to interested, motivated inner-city students by well-trained teachers. Neither the students nor the teachers were outside the socioeconomic norms for the area, which is one of the toughest neighborhoods in the state.
There was no blackboard and no textbooks. The students did not sit in rows, expected to be silent while the teacher lectured; instead, they sat at round tables, large enough for about six, and they talked a lot.
As I entered the classroom, the teacher was standing before an interactive whiteboard, the latest in technology. As she touched it, a slide appeared, containing the elements of a problem to be solved. She went through it, explaining what it was about and what they needed to consider to find a solution, and then she gave them four minutes to work on it. (I took physics in both high school and college, and I didn't understand a word she was saying.)
She moved through the room as they did their work, talking among themselves around the tables. She gave reminders of the elements of the process they should be using. When time was up, each student entered his or her answer into a key pad — every student had one — and the teacher touched the whiteboard. The slide gave way to a pie chart showing what percentage of students had chosen which answers. The teacher's key pad told her the names associated with each answer, and she called upon a student to come to the board and diagram the process by which he had come up with his solution. He did so, and other students commented, some supporting and some challenging his decisions.
After the class agreed on which answer was the right one, and where errors had been made, she touched the board again. Another slide appeared. This time, her explanation went faster and the process repeated itself. The next pie chart was a single color — every student had the correct answer, showing that all now understood.
The principal told me that three years earlier the school had been scheduled to be closed. Instead, it has been transformed. Going to school is now considered fun; students spend their time doing puzzles together, almost like a game. They respect their teachers and each other, and bullying has virtually disappeared. Before, predicted career paths for inner city students who graduated were auto mechanics for the boys and beauty schools for the girls. Those in the program I saw are outperforming students in suburban schools on AP physics and chemistry tests, and headed to college.
Technology has changed the job market dramatically; it can change our education system as well and give us the talent we need. There is reason for hope.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.