Do We Need A National Computer Curriculum?

by David R. Weinraub

Recent studies have confirmed what many educators, politicians and concerned citizens have known for decades: that public education in the United States is generally inadequate when compared to other countries and is downright appalling in our inner cities. The Program for International Student Assessment found that U.S. fifteen-year-olds are 25th out of 30 in math and 24th out of 30 in science when compared to other countries. In addition, 48 per cent of black and 43 per cent of Latino eighth-graders are below basic (inadequate - well below grade level) in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to only 17 per cent of whites.

Those studies don’t specify how poorly our students do in inner-city neighborhood high schools. A review of 2007 basic skill scores from the Pennsylvania State System of School Assessment (PSSA) shows that in 20 selected Philadelphia neighborhood high schools, 86.9 per cent of the students are basic (below grade level – marginal) and below basic in math and 85.1 per cent are basic and below basic in reading. In 2008, the same 20 schools improved slightly to 83 per cent basic and below in math and 82 per cent in reading. Complete test scores may be examined here.

Is the answer to this overwhelming problem to invest more money in public education? Yes - but money alone will not suffice. The Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OCED) in Paris has cited the U.S. as having the poorest outcome per dollar spent on education. How we spend money is as critical as how much we spend. Nothing short of systemically rethinking and restructuring American public education will reverse the fifty percent urban high school dropout rate we now bear. We must fix public education.

There certainly is a lot that needs fixing, but let’s begin with our instructional strategies. “No Child Left Behind” started in the right direction by setting standards but left us at the bottom of the mountain by not including the curricula, instructional techniques and money to help us meet those standards. Additionally, some of the standards were pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams of Washington bureaucrats who never spent a day teaching in an inner city school. So because some school administrators didn’t know how to meet these lofty goals, they resorted to “teaching to the test” and severely narrowed their educational focus.

What we must first do is establish a national, standards-based, K-12, flow-through curriculum that uses computer-based instruction in every subject and is freely available to every school district in the country. Once the curriculum is in place, small group instruction can replace the centuries-old, outdated practice of lecturing to an entire class of students with varied abilities.

A “flow-through curriculum” is the entire K-12 course of study for every subject organized by sets of related skills and tasks that build upon each other. That is, students do not move up the ladder of skills until they have demonstrated a clear understanding of skills at their current level. With the entire curriculum available on computers, students will be able to flow from one set of skills to the next at their own pace, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. This will enable the quicker students to fly while the slower students get the extra help they need.

Key to making this computer-based curriculum available throughout the country is to first identify and index the necessary tasks and skills and then develop the instruction to teach them. Surprisingly, this monumental task has nearly been completed, albeit in scattergun fashion. Many states and the federal government have already developed the standards; private companies have written excellent computer-based software that teach directly to those standards. Piecing all this together is a very doable task – one that can and must be done quickly.

Once the computer-based flow-through curriculum is available, the transition to small group instruction can easily be made. Although the number of students assigned to a teacher may stay the same, the class structure will completely change. With the proper number of computers in each class, there will be small groups of about six students working together who are learning at approximately the same pace. As some groups will be working on the computer, some doing writing and reading assignments, some doing research and some getting explanations and help from the teacher, this is all manageable.

A great advantage of this system is that the test scoring and record keeping done by the software will enable the teacher to definitively track each student’s progress. Our city kids move from school to school and city to city. They drop out and drop back in again. They have babies and get sick and they miss an extraordinary amount of time being late and absent; a significant number of students miss time through suspension from school and even incarceration. If we had a national, computer-based curriculum and record keeping system, up-to-date student records would allow us to plug students back in, right where they left off.

The U.S. has approximately 14,500 school districts following their own curricula under varying degrees of individual state guidelines. While many of the countries whose educational systems completely outperform ours have national curricula, the U.S. does not. We have bailed out our insurance companies, our automobile companies and our banks. Isn’t it time we bailed out our schools with a national curriculum and 21st century instructional strategies?

David R. Weinraub earned Bachelor's and Master's degrees from Temple University and a Doctor of Education degree, specializing in educational administration, from the University of Pennsylvania. Through his career he has been an inner-city teacher, coach, dean, assistant principal and high school principal as well as an assistant professor of graduate education. David received a national award for an outstanding Career Education program while principal and a grant from the State of Pennsylvania to design the Jr. Naval Academy Charter School for students returning from incarceration. He also developed the first English language prompted authoring (software) system for the IBM PC when it was first released.