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When the future of learning prompts uncomfortable discussions

Liz Willen
By Liz Willen
BURLINGAME, Cal. – The conversation concerned hair. More specifically, how a black high school student named Jada Buford wore hers, and the comments a white male teacher made that made her feel singled out for her race.

The raw and honest discussion last week, following a screening of an “America to Me” episode I saw at the annual NewSchools Venture Fund Summit, took me by surprise. It was not what I expected from an invitation-only gathering for more than a thousand education leaders, including many who have been obsessed over the years with “disrupting” and “reimagining” a perceived “factory model” of education.

This year’s conference focused on the future of work, and opening night offered a screening of an episode from the upcoming Starz and Participant Mediadocuseries.

I don’t think you can talk about that future without discussing race and equity, issues at the cornerstone of much of our work here at The Hechinger Report.And “America to Me” deftly forced that discussion, with its detailed and intimate look at students and teachers inside the sprawling, diverse and high-achieving Oak Park and River Forest High, about eight miles outside Chicago.

The film got a lot of positive buzz at the Sundance film festival, in part because it was directed by Steve James, of “Hoop Dreams” fame. It’s an immersive look at a coveted public high school where 95 percent of graduates go to college, but where the gap between black and white students is growing – and hasn’t been addressed sufficiently, according to many people featured in the series.

That’s why I welcomed the discussion of Jada’s hair, and other ways she expressed discomfort about how black students were treated at her school. The series showcases a lack of urgency about the achievement gap from school officials and school board leaders, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the gap may be ignored.

At the same time, it shows students making profound statements about inequality in real and visceral ways, captured in everyday moments of their lives at home and in school.

The episode I watched took us inside the classroom of Jessica Stovall, a spectacularly talented teacher, and into the life of her biracial family in her Wisconsin hometown as a way of explaining her passion for racial equity. Stovall is highly attuned to both the lives of her students and the inaction of her superiors toward lagging test performances for black students.

I spoke with Stovall after the panel, and she teared up at the idea of leaving her students at the end of the year, when she’s off to Stanford University to pursue her Ph.D. in Race, Inequality and Language in Education. I wondered if she thinks the television docuseries will change anything in the community or at the school, and she said she hopes that it will. (Beginning this fall, the series will have its debut on Starz, and will also be available online.)

It was also great to meet Jada, who says her experience being filmed gave her a new career goal: she hopes to educate and inform audiences about social issues as a filmmaker herself.

Read high-quality news about innovation and inequality in education at The Hechinger Report. And, here are a few of the latest news developments and trends in the future of learning.

1. Getting past the “hype’’: It’s always good to be a bit leery about any education philosophy that comes with a lot of hype, which, by definition, means “extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion.” That’s what was enticing about a session at last week’s NewSchools Venture Fund Summit that promised to get “behind the hype” on personalized learning. Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP Innovations in Chicago, attributed the hype to technology developers promoting “tools that aren’t personalized learning.” It isn’t about tech tools, she said, “it’s about teachers and practice and kids and classrooms, and we have to get beyond the hype that just because you are using technology, you are doing personalized learning. You are not.”

2. More states boost computer science: Twenty states have passed legislation to upgrade computer science standards or funding – or both –in the first five months of 2018 alone, according to the Code.org Advocacy Coalition. The coalition (whose 60-plus members include commercial giants like Microsoft and Amazon and local advocacy groups like the Nashville Technology Council) has published a detailed list to show the status of computer science in each state. Since the nonprofit group Code.org was created in 2013 to promote computer science, 43 states have enacted new policies and allocated $77 million toward them, according to the group. The 20 states with new laws in 2018 include eight states now requiring their high schools (and sometimes all schools) to teach computer science: Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wyoming.

3Two-star webinar: Four organizations joined together to survey teachers and students and produce a report summarizing how personalized learning is developing nationwide. It’s called “A National Landscape Scan of Personalized Learning in K-12 Education,” and the well-known leaders of two of the group – Susan Patrick of iNACOL and Betheny Gross of the Center on Reinventing Public Education – will conduct a webinar about the results on Wednesday, May 23, from 1-2 pm. Ticket information here.

Further reading: 

Project-based learning and standardized tests don’t mix,” via The Hechinger Report

6 reasons why district-wide tech implementations are the right choice,” via eSchool News

Free Textbooks? Federal government is on track with a pilot program,” via The Washington Post

Holographic Tech Could Be The Next Big AR Offering in K-12 Classrooms,” via EdTech Magazine