Americans understand that fundamental changes must be made to the U.S. educational system if the country is to remain competitive in the 21st century, a report released July 26 by Cisco Systems finds. Americans especially realize the importance of adopting information technology to upgrade schools, connect communities, and improve educational content, the report suggests–but they’re often conflicted about how to implement these changes.

Zogby International conducted the survey of more than 7,000 Americans, titled "Education Attitudes 2007," back in May. The majority of respondents said technology is an important factor in connecting schools to their communities, as well as in leveling the playing field among more and less affluent schools by providing equal access to educational content. But respondents disagreed on how schools should impart key 21st-century skills to their students.

"How to best educate students so that they have the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century workforce is a critical issue facing every country," said Bill Fowler, executive director of Cisco’s 21st Century Schools Initiative. Yet "this survey highlights that there is a common understanding and appreciation that technology will play a key role in improving the way teachers teach and students learn, so that they are prepared to take advantage of all the opportunities a global society and networked communities provide."

According to the survey, 59 percent of Americans agree that "information technology is a vital tool that can help educate our students by providing access to video and other dynamic content" and that more should be done to incorporate technology into the learning process.

Americans also recognize that understanding science and technology is important to success in the 21st-century workforce, the poll suggests: 69 percent of Americans believe that science and math courses should be made mandatory for grades 7 through 12.

Competitiveness in a global marketplace is a key issue facing U.S. graduates. And by a slim majority, Americans also believe that the U.S. education system should take a more global approach to its curriculum, the poll suggests. Fifty-four percent of Americans said schools should place a greater emphasis on teaching a global perspective.

Yet, despite the growing need for problem-solving skills in an innovation-based economy, Americans are not prepared to base students’ grades on collaboration skills by shifting coursework away from individual achievement. Only 32 percent of those surveyed said they support a grading system that favors teaching students how to work more effectively in groups (by basing 25 percent of a student’s grade on group work). Instead, 58 percent said educators should continue to promote and focus efforts on individual performance.

Along the same lines, the poll also asked if "standardized testing is contrary to our education objectives, by placing too much emphasis on individualized testing and incentives to achieve test results that may not reflect knowledge." While 45 percent of respondents said "yes," 46 percent said "no."

 

The need for a cohesive vision for teaching students 21st-century skills was the subject of a panel discussion held in conjunction with the survey’s release. Hosted by Cisco at the National Press Club on July 25, the forum invited ed-tech leaders to discuss the survey’s results. Participants agreed that while there is a consensus about what students should be able to know and do for the U.S. to remain competitive in the global marketplace, the methods for reaching these educational goals are still the subject of intense debate.

"What we need is a unified vision," said Keith Krueger, chief executive of the Consortium for School Networking. "Everyone seems to have the same opinions in the room, then they leave and they all have different opinions."

Even among the panel, there seemed to be a range of opinions. Jennifer Cutler, a teacher at McLean High School in Fairfax County, Va., said she supports group learning. She said she believes the U.S. needs to "get away from tracking at such an early age … and should pool everyone’s individual strengths together" to achieve better student performance.

Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, agreed with Cutler, saying schools need to look "beyond rote practices and forward into innovative learning," by encouraging "collaborative work … [and] project-based work in team environments."

Though collaborative learning is important, Krueger said—especially because most companies today value the ability of employees to work within a team structure—true education reform should be based on a healthy balance of collaborative and individualized instruction.

As a model, he cited the theory behind Amazon.com—a company that has achieved success by personalizing the delivery of services, using predictive software to suggest options that the individual might like.

"We need to ask how we can make the learning environment so that it pushes individual students to their next level," Krueger said. "We need new assessments based on individual student data."

One point the panelists did agree on: Educational technology should be uniformly integrated across all schools and districts–and more funding is needed to achieve this goal.

"It doesn’t make sense that Title II, Part D [the Enhancing Education Through Technology federal block-grant program] is getting cut, when Americans uniformly agree that our country needs to invest in ed tech," Krueger noted.

Links:

Video of panel discussion
http://www.463.com/Clients/Cisco/

Cisco Education
http://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/education/index.html

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org