Many in Alabama and throughout the United States yearn for the good old days. The way we used to deal with challenges worked, so they question the wisdom of change.
This frustration is particularly evident in education. In the not-so-distant past, simple schoolhouses whose most advanced technology was colored chalk catapulted the United States to the top of the developed world. No nation could brag of a better-educated or harder-working workforce.
Regaining global dominance, though, requires addressing new challenges. America competes directly with other nations, and it is falling behind. Many nations are adjusting to a changed world more quickly than America.
Athens City Schools will receive plenty of negative feedback for an ambitious plan to supply every student and teacher with a laptop or iPad. The plan is expensive — about $2.3 million over the next four years — and it contemplates instruction that has little resemblance to the reading, writing and arithmetic drills that once served the nation well.
Athens school officials recognize they are aiming at a moving target in their effort to prepare students for careers or college. A generation ago, computer and Internet skills were irrelevant. Today, success in every college and almost every career requires them. Students still need the skills that were required 30 years ago, but now they need more.
Athens school officials also recognize an economic reality, especially profound in Alabama. Poverty is increasing. School officials — in Athens, in Decatur, and in all school districts actively seeking to improve the prospects of their students — know both that technological proficiency is essential to success and that fewer families have the income necessary to provide computers to their children. Many are doing well to feed them.
Athens City Schools is competing not just with neighboring school districts, but with schools in other nations. A recent global study by Pearson education firm concluded the United States ranked 17 among the 51 developed nations or territories for education. The top five were Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.
Even that ranking is tenuous. A Harvard University study found that students in Latvia, Brazil and Chile are making academic gains three times as fast as American students. Those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania are improving at twice the rate.
School officials don’t have the luxury of continuing practices that worked fine a few decades ago.
Among the findings of the Pearson report were two that seemed especially applicable to Alabama. One was that attracting excellent teachers to the profession was crucial, and that requires recognition of their importance and good pay. The other, understood by Athens City officials, is that schools need to adjust to a changing world.
“Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago,” the report concluded. “Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in the future and teach accordingly.”