Community Editorial: Will America Produce Another Steve Jobs?

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Steve Jobs, arguably the greatest innovator of the 21st century and a product of American public schools, is gone. The big question that no one seems to be asking is, who will produce the next Steve Jobs? Will he be an American? Or will he come from somewhere else, perhaps from our greatest rival, China?

What will happen if China begins producing creative minds like Jobs’? Scary to think about what that could mean, but it’s a question worth asking.

Despite President Obama’s insistence that his education initiative, “Race to the Top,” will help reposition America as a leader in education, the initiative is really about a race to more implementation of multiple-choice, high-stakes testing and accountability.

This may be a good plan for factory workers but hardly a plan that will produce leaders and innovators.

In a succinct critique of what’s gone wrong with education, Kelly Gallagher, award-winning author of “Readicide — How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It,” laments that we are “preparing kids for a multiple choice test in an essay-based world.” An English teacher at Magnolia High School in Anaheim, Kelly adds that because of 10 years of implementing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), most schools have created a “quiet pedagogy of drilling conformity into kids which in the long run is against their (and our) best interests.”

In a multiple-choice, test-driven world, kids are taught that there is always a right answer and moreover that the answer is always given to them.

Kids learn early on that they don’t have to think outside the box, they don’t have to be creative, collaborative or be critical thinkers. They just have to be good at memorizing rote facts and eliminating the wrong answers. Of course if they get stuck, just follow the advice my eighth grade son’s principal gives and choose the letter “C.” My son tells me that that advice is exactly why most young people think adults are “full of crap.”

The problem, though, is that most parents think principals like my son’s are doing a great job because of high test scores. Parents simply don’t know what the test scores really mean. Most people equate high test scores (Academic Performance Index) with school quality. Since the API is heavily weighted toward reading and math, a high API score may mean that your child attends a pretty good school, or it may mean that that school has narrowed the curriculum and promotes teaching to the test with very little attention to critical thinking, writing or academic literacy — all skills needed for college and career success.

Despite some districts like the Anaheim Union High School District moving toward instruction focused on literacy across a broad “21st century” curriculum, there are sadly many schools in the county that have capitulated to the pressures of high stakes testing by narrowing course options to what’s tested.

Some “high achieving” junior high schools have cut back on history and science and have completely eliminated world languages to make room for test prep and “double block” reading and math courses.

History and science should be yearlong courses offered in seventh and eighth grades, yet we are seeing a disturbing trend toward cutting these important core classes to just one semester. Additionally, several high schools in the county have eliminated valuable electives like career tech education, visual and performing arts, and languages just so they could offer California High School Exit Examination prep courses.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, once an early advocate of No Child Left Behind, now says this: “No Child Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education.” Under the nation’s accountability system, Ravitch says, “we’re only measuring what we can, and not what matters most. As a result, we’ve narrowed the curriculum to the exclusion of other important subjects by focusing primarily on making adequate yearly progress in reading and math.”

Unfortunately, President Obama, under the myopic leadership of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is continuing the Bush NCLB legacy, pushing us ever further into educational dystopia.

While our country has focused on high-stakes accountability, China has moved toward teaching critical thinking and innovation. Every year, they send delegations of their top educators to the most innovative country in the history of the world, the USA, to learn how we teach critical thinking and creativity.

Cal State Fullerton has hosted Chinese educators, who visit innovative schools throughout Orange County. They visit high-achieving places like Oxford Academy in the Anaheim Union High School District to learn about how to teach critical thinking.

The irony is stultifying. While the Chinese are moving to an education system that innovates, we have transformed ours into a bureaucratic, centralized Politburo that rewards test takers and stifles out-of-the-box thinkers.

Watching a polite interchange between OC and Chinese educators, it occurred to me that the Chinese want to create an educational environment that will allow the next Steve Jobs to flourish.

If we don’t wake up to this fact, we will lose out in the greatest race since the race to the moon.

However, one huge advantage we have going for us is that we are still a democracy which has developed into a more open society with respect to appreciating diversity in all forms.

While far from perfect, this is still one of the few places in the world where the talent and contributions of people from all walks of life are recognized and can grow.

Thus the child of an unwed mother and Syrian father could be adopted into a loving family and go on to found Apple; a 10-year old immigrant from Taiwan could grow up to found Yahoo; and the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants could become the president of the largest university in Orange County. Each of these leaders was educated in U.S. public schools at a time when testing was not the sole determinant of the curriculum.

Fortunately, we do have leaders who get it.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been a loud critic of the heavy emphasis on testing and recently signed a bill, AB 250, that promotes more critical thinking and writing. Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, has also sparred with the feds over evaluating teachers by test scores, which leads to more teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum.

Locally it’s up to school boards and district superintendents to help educate the public on what multiple-choice, high-stakes testing means so that we do not end up with more test takers in an essay-based world.

If our local leaders have the courage to allow teachers to teach critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication, the next Steve Jobs could very well come from here. In a global economy where American dominance is in danger of sharp decline, the stakes could not be higher.

Michael Matsuda is a trustee with the North Orange County Community College District and is an award-winning educator and administrator who currently oversees professional development for the Anaheim Union High School District. Matsuda is also a chairman of the state Partnership for 21st Century Education.

 

 

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