Arthur Levine

A ‘Technological Fix’ for Education

VTR Date: July 9, 1996

Guest: Levine, Arthur


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Arthur Levine
Title: “A ‘Technological Fix’ for American Education”
VTR: 7/9/1996

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. In his State of the Union address late in January 1996, the President of the United States proposed to bring every American classroom and library into the Computer Age, meaning that every American schoolchild and library user, rich or poor, privileged or otherwise, would, by the year 2000, be connected, as Bill Clinton promised, to the information superhighway. With computers, good software, and well trained teachers. My guest today, Arthur Levine, President of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College, was among those education experts who hailed Bill Clinton’s proposal and was quoted in The New York Times as saying that such a move was critical. But interestingly enough, he added “I would not have said that a few years ago”, explaining that now what’s happening in this country is that the wealthiest school districts are getting the technology and the poorest are not. And they’re falling further and further behind. Technology like this, said President Levine, can open an incredible array of opportunities to these kids. As The New York Times story paraphrased my guest, with computer technology, the schools with the poorest libraries and resources can have access now to the same educational resources as the richest. Without it, the gaps between rich and poor are certain to grow. All of which interests me enormously because I have read Mr. Levine’s “Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College” and I can’t help but wonder how much good any such technological fix can do in the face of such statistics as his book cites that American students from families in the bottom income bracket are eight times less likely to graduate from college than those in the rest of the population. The gap in college attendance between rich and poor is actually growing. And so, I would ask Mr. Levine today, what role technology is likely to play in beating the odds. What’s going to happen?

LEVINE: Technology is not going to be the answer for beating the odds. What happens now is that we stand to put kids who are disadvantaged even further behind by lack of technology. Technology is not the way we are going to take the poor and turn them into middle class kids, but to prepare them to enter into a work world without those kinds of skills is going to handicap them even further. So it’s not the way out. But it is a vital skill they need to be productive in American society.

HEFFNER: Now, does that mean you’re enthusiastic about the President’s premise? Are you hopeful? Do you think it can take place?

LEVINE: Nah, I don’t think it’s going to happen immediately. I don’t think we’re going to see it in the life of this administration. We live in a cash-poor time. And I think the sentiment is that that’s exactly where we need to go. I can’t imagine the states having the kind of resources it’s going to take to make this real. I can’t imagine a federal government at a time when we’re slashing human resource budgets providing money for this kind of activity…but I think it’s a signal in the right direction. It’s symbolic. I mean we’re going to see model programs. That’s where we’ll go.

HEFFNER: But what about in terms of the history of American education? What about the role that technological fixings have played? Film, television and the like?

LEVINE: Yeah, that’s a real good comparison I think. Ah, when computers first came out we imagined that the classroom was going to be transformed. It never happened. I think what’s going on is that computers have become more than a gadget this time. I think we’re in the midst of a third technological revolution in this country. Let me take that back, the second technological revolution in this country. We’ve seen it with the industrial revolution, now we’re seeing it with the computer and electronic revolution. And to that extent, the kinds of change we’re talking about have the capacity to revolutionize what goes on in the classroom, the capacity to change what schools look like. So they’re not going to be incorporated as another teaching aid this time, as was the hope in the 50s and 60s and even 70s. But they’re going to be now fundamentally changing the nature of education and the kinds of resources available to kids.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting. You talk about just another teaching aid. Wasn’t it the responsibility of the educational establishment that film in the past and television in the past, which were also looked upon as panaceas, became only aids, and that the teaching establishment did not want, out of fear, did not want these instruments to play too large a role. Is that unfair?

LEVINE: Yeah, I think it may be. I’m trying to imagine a whole school based on film. One of the things we know about kids and the way they learn is that interaction is real important. And film doesn’t offer that as well. At least not film that we had in the 40s the 50s and 60s, when it was talked about becoming a panacea.

HEFFNER: Yes, but in the years that followed certainly television and videotape and a number of developments permitted the teaching of a group to make use of snippets, large portions, or whatever, and bring it into a classroom in a more helpful fashion, and you didn’t do it!

LEVINE: Nah, I think we DID do that. If one goes into a typical school, if one sees films being shown and saw them once before, it’s hard to replace the existing classroom with an array of films. They don’t have the capacity…to replace the textbook, the blackboard, the visitor to the classroom. They’re not the whole ballgame, which technology offers both the prospect and the danger of becoming.

HEFFNER: What would the computer do? Will it then be an aid?

LEVINE: It’s easy right now to see the impact the computer is going to have on higher education, then it is to see the impact it’s going to have on schools. What’s likely to happen…let’s…the middle of next century…my guess is that much of higher education as we know it has disappeared and has been replaced by technological universities. Let me explain what I mean and why. Right now, the typical college student, the 18-22 year old who attends full time and lives on campus makes up 17% of all college students…Instead we are seeing working adults, and we are seeing older students who show up and take a course, two courses, maybe three courses. They don’t work on the campus, they don’t have friendships on the campus, they don’t live on the campus. Their lives are not on the campus. And for them, what they’re looking for is convenience. They’re looking for ways to get this education more easily than they have in the past. And we now have, we’re coming very close to a time in which we can offer them instruction in their homes, in their office buildings, and they won’t have to come to the campus at all. And given the nature of that population, and given the kind of…we can make, it seems very, very natural for the physical plant that was higher education to become far less important that a lot of it will disappear in the next few years.

HEFFNER: What are the implications of that for the people you deal with, for the teachers in training?

LEVINE: We deal not only with teachers in training, we end up having administrators in training. We end up having policy makers in training and academics in training. And interesting example would be, we just started a program for the open superintendents around the United States. When that program ends, we are going to hook up all those superintendents up electronically so we can continue the kind of instruction that’s gone on. It’s much easier for those people to give us an afternoon a week four times a year, give us an afternoon four times a year then to get on an airplane and fly to New York for a two-day seminar. I think increasingly, we are going to see more and more of that begin to happen. More and more education that occurs over, or using technological means than an actual physical plant. People are going to look at the way we used to educate people and say it’s reminiscent to people traveling on stage coaches. We just don’t do that anymore.

HEFFNER: But you think of that as higher education…


HEFFNER: …at that level…

LEVINE: First. We had…the virtual university was created in the western states. The western states got together in 2 weeks, in a month, and said that what they were going to do was to create a university which is going to be entirely technologically based. That’s the first step. The difficulty with that in a K-12 kind of thing, or in schools, is that interaction with real people, with adults is real important. And where as I can imagine in a time where we are having people spending minimums of time in a university replacing with technology, I still can’t see the kind of technology that will replace the classroom. I just don’t see it as being possible right now. But it seems to be a main facet of what goes on in that classroom.

HEFFNER: What do you mean a “main facet” of what goes on?

LEVINE: I have an interesting…I went to visit a project that one of the faculty was working on in a school in Harlem. And I walked in, and there was a student who was working on a project on John Paul Jones. And he was working on the project with another classmate, except that other classmate was in Ohio. And they were on a computer together. And now that they can see each other and talk in real time, they were using resources from a library which they acquired over the internet. And in fact what had happened was they were learning together! We brought together kids with a common interest, who could work together, who could motivate each other, and they were getting their information not from the school library, which probably had a book on John Paul Jones, but from this vast array of stuff that was now available through the internet. That was incredibly exciting. In a lot of ways, it speaks to only the beginning of what we are going to see.

HEFFNER: But how exceptional is that? How exceptional must that be in terms of the larger picture of educating as many millions of millions of millions of children that we do?

LEVINE: It’s too exceptional. At the moment, some of the better prep schools, independent schools, are able to afford those kinds of programs. Places like Fieldston, Dalton are famous for their technology. But the reality is that most schools can’t afford it. And the poorer school is less likely to afford it and the end result is that it is NOT going to be the ends for millions and millions of kids. What’s going to happen is that kids who go to school like Dalton and Fieldston are going to be a step ahead, and the kids that go to public schools are going to find themselves even further behind.

HEFFNER: It’s funny, ah, when CTW, the Children’s Television Workshop began Sesame Street the charge was made that instead of narrowing the gap between those who were blessed with intellectual wealth and those who were cursed with having very little, that Sesame Street, in a sense, widened the gap. The rich got richer, the intellectually rich, the educationally rich got richer and the poor got poorer. And do you think that that’s what’s going to happen? I mean, your discussion of Fieldston and Dalton seems to indicate that you think that that’s what will happen with the Computer Age.

LEVINE: No, I think it’s what’s going to happen in the short run. The interesting phenomenon with Sesame Street was, I remember seeing a poll of kids…and in the 1980s more could identify Lucille Ball than Big Bird. So it’s not only having a TV, it’s having the ability to watch it. It’s having parents think it’s a worthwhile activity for the kids to pursue. And that makes it a lot harder. It means it’s not enough to have what we have. An important part of it is teaching teachers how to use it. Teaching parents how to use it. The notion of whether this is going to create a gap, that’s a short run gap. Eventually what’s going to happen is that the price is going to come down. Just as we saw that only the affluent had television originally, only the affluent had telephones originally, I think we’re going to see the same thing with computers. We’re going to see in the short run wealthy people and middle class people far more likely to buy the stuff, but as the prices come down, it becomes a much more central part of living. I think poor people will get it as well, but it’s going to take too long.

HEFFNER: But you know, when I read “Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College”, I didn’t read about devices, I read about human beings, about the impact upon a person, on a person of mentors. How do you factor that into this whole question of educational technology? What you wrote about here are human beings acting upon human beings.

LEVINE: I’ve never ever thought that technology was the answer to poverty. I’ve never thought that it was a way to get a kid out of poverty. The difficulty now is that it is going to leave kids further behind if they don’t know technology. It takes a human being to make a difference. Kids move, kids succeed. The poverty breaker isn’t technology. The poverty breaker is people who care about kids.

HEFFNER: And what do we do about that?

LEVINE: In terms of technologies? In terms of…

HEFFNER: Breaking the bonds.

LEVINE: Yeah. One of the surprises was…I ended up doing a study of kids almost by accident. I had spent a lot of time with…I had moved into a housing project. I spent some time talking to moms. I spent some time talking to kids. I asked the kids, “If you could go as far as you want in school, how far would you go?” The most common answer was 10th grade, followed distantly by 12th. I asked them “Do you know anybody who’s ever completed college, who’s gone to college?” The answer was “no”. I asked them, “Do you know anybody who’s ever finished high school?” They had friends of relatives or relatives of friends, but nobody in their immediate lives. I talked to their moms, and I said “Tell me about college”. I guess first I asked them “What do you want for your kids?” And they said, “Well, I want my kid to be successful, I want my kid to be happy. I don’t want my kid to get into trouble.” That’s what any parent does. I said “Tell me about college”. And the answer was glazed eyes, wide expressions. They’re not college people. I’d ask them the same question if I had asked if they expect their kid to go to Mars. The surprise in the study that we did was finding that anybody can be a mentor. Anybody. The person who really stood out for me was a woman who had a fourth grade education, spoke no English, had a child out of wedlock, worked in a hospital as an orderly, saw the doctors, and concluded that the doctors weren’t smarter than she was, just better educated. And said “My daughter is going to have what they have”. Her daughter ended up being an undergraduate at Harvard and is now doing her medical work at Yale. Anybody can be a mentor. We have the capacity to turn anybody in the United States into a mentor. They only need four characteristics in common. What we found that there were people who really believed that hard work paid off. They really believed they could make a difference through education. They felt that they could make a difference in kids’ lives personally. And finally, they were bicultural. They understood poverty, they understood middle-class life, and they understood what it took to get from one to the other. What we need to do is train a nation of mentors.

HEFFNER: And how do you go about that?

LEVINE: Oh, there are lots of ways to do that. One of the things that colleges and universities are forever talking about is making a difference in schools. What we need is colleges and universities to step into a school, adopt a school. One of the most useful things we can do is begin offering classes for parents, on issues of mentoring, issues of schooling, teaching the very basic skills that are necessary for a kid to make it. Those classes are possible. In colleges they’re possible, in industry they’re possible, community organizations. It doesn’t take a lot to convince a parent that they can make a difference in their kids’ lives. And that’s where the effort needs to go. I think it would be far better to do this on a local basis than it would to start a federal program. I think it would more worthwhile to try this in our cities and our communities than it would be to try this in Washington, D.C.

HEFFNER: All right, then let me ask you this question: if you would…can identify what should be done, can you have…is it being done? Literally? Literally. Not pie in the sky.

LEVINE: Yeah, it is. There are…right in the city in which it’s being done. There’s a program called “I Have a Dream” which was started by Eugene Lang, which takes the basic principles of mentorship and it’s small now. But what it does is, it targets kids individually, it promises then at a very early age to get them a college education, it offers kids the support services they need, it involves their parents, and right now there are about 10,000 kids in the United States who are part of this program. The problem with it is that it is very small. It’s not that the principles don’t work. It’s independently funded. It takes a wealthy person who wants to set up a project in his or her community, to make it happen. But, yeah, there are examples that are all over America.

HEFFNER: All right, now, Teachers College. Teachers, teachers, teachers, individual administrators, so you have a sense…you say that this program is to be found all over America. Do you have a sense of growth of this ideal, of this notion, of this purposefulness at a level that is truly significant given the problems that we face?

LEVINE: Absolutely not. The reality is that the conditions of poverty are getting worse in this country, more people are getting poor, and the path out of poverty for kids is getting more and more elusive.

HEFFNER: What do we do then, close the book?

LEVINE: I sure hope not. Ah…

HEFFNER: What do we do then? What do YOU do?

LEVINE: …I said I didn’t think this was a time for programs in Washington. I’m not against programs in Washington. I’d much rather see state programs target, for these kinds of programs are local. I’d like to see model programs established in different communities. It would be very cheap to do. Foundations could begin to do it. We’ve done slipshod kinds of efforts. We haven’t focused on whole communities. We’ve focused on a particular school with programs like “I Have a Dream”. I’d like to see us focus on neighborhoods. I’d like to see real model programs being tried. We have the research now. We’ve just never tried it. What I’d ask is that we try 5-10 different communities in which we take on the notion of mentorship in an organized fashion and build real programs. What I’m talking about here is foundations in government where it matters not where the money comes from, being willing to put in a period of 5-10 years, evaluate the results, and publicize the consequences. I think we have a real model for making that happen. How do we do it at Teachers College? We’ve made a commitment to the notion of mentorship, but that’s nothing to do with my research or my book. In essence, what happens at a place like Teachers College is since the College began, it began with this rat hole notion that we were doing a terrible job with the immigrant kids before the turn of the century. I looked up what do you do to help immigrant kids? And what Teachers College concluded, or the founders concluded was that the problem was that teachers didn’t know how to educate them. Let’s create a new breed of teacher. So they created a college for that purpose. We could call them teachers. We could also call them mentors. Our job at Teachers College is to train mentors who will help kids, prepare mentors one person at a time. And those mentors fill positions as teachers, they fill positions as parents, they fill positions as administrators, they fill positions as policy makers. That goes a step further. We’re about to open a new center of parenting, which is going to focus very, very much on notions of mentoring and how we can help parents make a difference in kids’ lives.

HEFFNER: Their own kids’ lives.

LEVINE: Their own kids’ lives. I also think mentoring is contagious. Having watched communities and having watched kids, one of the problems in poor communities that parents have too, is that there are no models of success. Poor communities have gotten poorer and poorer over time. One of the…maybe the only…one of the consequences of desegregation in the United States is that once desegregation unfairly forced professionals and entrepreneurs into the same community because they were all the same color. What happened in those days is that the poor kid could see the doctor down the street, could see the small business operator. What’s happened with desegregation was that it became fair and appropriate for people who were of different strata to move into different communities. They weren’t forced to live in a place. The result was that poor communities emptied of anybody who had money and the role models disappeared. The consequence is that for poor kids, there were no examples of people that were making it. For moms, they didn’t know anybody who had made it. They are desperate for models of people who are making it. If they can find out what works for other kids, moms would love to do those kinds of things for their own kids.

HEFFNER: How sanguine are you about, let’s say you describe the ideal approach, the model approach. How sanguine are you at this point? I suppose we should end the program…we have a minute or so left, on an upbeat note. But quite literally, what you do at Teachers College, what we do to train our teachers, that’s an awful lot of…what are, what are real assumptions…what are real assumptions going to be about the future? What’s yours?

LEVINE: If you’re in education, you can’t be anything but hopeful. I ended up entering this field a long time ago for the reason that I was part of the 60s, and I asked “How do you change the world? How does one diminish injustice?” And the only answer I could come up to was
education. It’s the slowest, but the only effective way I know of of changing the world. And so, we do our work at Teachers College. The conditions have changed and the ways in which we do it have changed. But the fundamental commitment that drives the institution hasn’t changed in a hundred years.

HEFFNER: And your anticipation about success?

LEVINE: I’m not a fool. The problem of poverty has been with us for too long. Our job in part, my job in part is…America ought to be ashamed at the kinds of numbers we have. America ought to be ashamed of the fact that we’re losing ground. The fact of the matter is that not only is it shameful, but it’s an economic accident, mistake, a horrible occurrence for this country. The end result is that the best we can hope to do right now is to educate the country about what it ought to be doing, motivate the country to move in that direction, and provide the model for successful practice on how to do it.

HEFFNER: …that’s a good point in which to end, and to thank you for providing that model. Thanks a lot for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

LEVINE: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

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