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Caseythoughts I usually hesitate to comment on situations/events that may turn out to be 'old news' in the few days between my writing and its publication in the Star. Some things change quickly and others seem like 'old news' the moment they happen. I would, though, opine on the government 'shutdown' affecting 800,000 employees and their families. One point to make is that if the employees and staff of Congress and the White House received an IOU in their pay envelope this week, in addition to the working stiffs lower on the government feeding chain, I would wager a week of my pay at the Lansing Star that the 'shutdown' would end pretty quickly.

The other point to be made is that as I write this (Day 21, imagine TV commentator Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore show announcing in stentorian voice) the ability to solve a problem without 'losing face' is rapidly diminishing. This, I feel, is a very valid term in Asian circles, and a legitimate social construct. The longer those so-called elected representatives in Congress and the White House dig their heels in and 'appeal to their base' the less able they are to compromise, apt to risk the media determining who 'lost' and who 'won', or 'who blinked first'. Those are false and misleading constructs, to say the least, but those people in Washington aren't playing for us, they're playing to the media, and in it for themselves. Such is American party politics and such was the worst nightmare of our founding fathers. Well, at least some of them. Where are the statesmen and women? Hiding, I daresay.

I want to say the following numbers shocked me, and they sure did get me thinking and attempting to make a few connections. I just read this week that: 29% of rural high schools offer computer science courses; 34% of urban high schools offer computer science classes; 45% of suburban high schools offer computer science classes.

Now, I would posit that we should first point out that I put the word 'only' in front of the numbers for it is hard to believe that even in the so-called 'best' high schools (if that applies to suburbia as well as the best of our rural and urban high schools) we are basically saying that 7 of 10 rural kids have no computer science availability, 7 out of 10 kids in urban setting have no computer science available and even half of our suburban kids have none, either.

Now, let's make a distinction: being handed a ChromeBook or iPad is NOT a computer science course. It's being given a tool for computer usage to complete homework, etc., and learning how to use a keyboard (we called it typing class in the dark ages) is not computer literate. The idea with computer science is to learn the ins and outs, the 'how to' and 'How does it do that?'. 'What's the math behind algorithms and artificial intelligence?' 'How doers a chip, a modem, a router work?' This is basic computer science which well over half of our high school students have no access to in a formalized setting, and we would have to question how much science they're getting in the classes that are on offer. I mean, how available is the Robotics team to the vast majority of kids in our schools? Supposedly these classes are more available in college, but overseas the offerings are much more available, and these other countries are who we are envious of, yes?

Remember when the argument about calculators in the classroom was raging? Logically, the math teacher would say that the student needed to understand the math concept to be able to use a calculator and these teachers were correct. Luckily, they won out at the time.

Now, from what I've seen, many of our students know how to play with computers, program an app, set up a new TV or PC, but so few of these students would have any concept of the science behind what they are operating, and how to think (forgive the cliche) 'out of the box'. They need a classroom experience, as well as real world challenges, programming curriculum, peers and role models to challenge and well trained computer science teachers at the primary, middle and high school levels to lead. Not just to play, although I am sure there are those who say playing is learning. Well...

If more than half of our high school students only know 'how' to make a computer work (like showing us Neanderthals how to use an app, etc.) but don't know the 'why' it works, then is it any wonder that their parents, especially those in rural and urban environments who stand to lose the most from automation and AI (and whose incomes are frequently at the lower end of the spectrum) are resistant or at least apathetic about the tech changes surrounding them? The people most threatened are those at the lower end of the economic scale and their kids aren't even receiving the real education necessary to hold the bottom line socially and economically.

If this isn't a 'Sputnik moment', I don't know what is. America stood stunned when they heard 'beep, beep' coming from a man-made satellite circling their earth, and the 'beep beep' was in the Russian language in 1957. The Russians who, America was convinced, could only build second-rate anythings, had now put a little sphere into the sky and told us America has lost its way. Our science had now become second rate, we had fallen behind academically and our leadership in the post-war world had begun to erode with their accomplishment. Twelve years later we put a man on the moon due to the embarrassment of 1957, a symbolic victory, for sure, and a psychological victory as well, even if in the middle of being castigated for our war in VietNam and questioning our moral leadership of the post-war world.

Now, the computing power of that Apollo moon craft is the same as can be found in any iPhone, but the scientists who conceive and put it together, imagined it and programmed it are, again, not necessarily American. And our high schools are, as in 1957, wallowing in second rate textbooks and outdated ideas about education and scholastic pursuit. Where sports get more attention than the gifted student (or even the mediocre one, for that matter), as well as ignoring the needs of gifted and talented teachers.

So, one thought comes to mind, and I'll try in a weak way to describe the idea simply, hopefully adequately.

It has been proposed by some that our strict structure of 'grades' as a basis for education is out-moded and a hindrance. I'm not talking of grades such as letters or numbers (grading), but the first grade, second grade, freshman, sophomore, etc.. Try this another way. Give me three classrooms and decide that, for example, the six and seven year-olds belong in that second grade classroom, the sixth grade classroom is meant for twelve year-olds, that junior year follows sophomore, etc. There are people who say that this is wrong headed and backwards, that it's nineteenth century thinking for a nineteenth century world. A disaster which may have already manifested itself in our chaotic education 'system'.

Maybe in the first three years there needs to be structure, but, just saying, a Montessori environment (or similar idea) might assist in helping a child's natural abilities and interests. Yes, they need to read and write, but the varying levels of maturity and ability to grasp concepts at that age set up a pattern of mediocrity and boredom which translate into more problems as the children get older, set in a pattern of pedagogy which is outmoded and almost strait-jacketing. The crux of this argument is that the concept of 'walling' off each 'grade' as if it were a line in the sand of academic growth, dictating and defining 'progress' by moving in a linear direction from 5th to 6th to 7th grades and continuing the charade into a similarly restricted high school environment gives a false and damaging sense (individually and system-wide) of education and progress. No wonder we have kids graduating who are socially/culturally illiterate and not ready for the college environment or a job.

A child's ability to move through certain subjects or disciplines can be encouraged by tearing down (figuratively) those walls. I promise I'm not echoing Pink Floyd here. A fourth grader is certainly called 'smart' when he/she is reading on a so-called seventh grade level. But isn't it possible for the child to be proficient in different areas and at different levels, and be given the opportunity to 'join' that level, even if the chronological age seems to prevent it? If we determine (I know that's a different kettle of fish) that a child can handle math or science at a higher level, why not put them in the appropriate level lab or classroom, including, especially, computer science? In other words, the child could, in theory at least, be able to progress in a way that does not inhibit them ('I'm bored in math class', or 'They don't read as fast as I do') but encouraged to move as quickly as they wish to.

High school? Tear down the figurative walls of freshman, sophomore, junior and senior and at the same time tear down the wall which separates the high school from BOCES/tech ed and the community college. They should be combined in physical plant as well as faculty, curricula and goals. The students would be given a goal of a certain number of 'credit hours' (liberally denoted as to content) and devise their own curriculum, much as Empire State College does for its adult student. At their own pace, too. Technical skills as well as computer skills (heck, a carpenter, or plumber, needs computer skills as well as math skills, and this will be more, not less true, as we progress in CAD, AI, and AR). Want to be a craftsman such as carpenter, plumber, designer? The chances are you already developed the rudimentary skills as well as the desire and drive to achieve that by the time you have come to the very early teen years. I've seen this in any number of fields, including auto repair. Eliminate the 'four year regimen' that the virtual walls of our current high school design have erected that holds so many of our students hostage to boredom and trouble, and in reality only seems to offer them two choices.

The high school experience will be akin, in this model, to a wide-open community college with lectures, laboratories, internships and skill enhancement, tremendously expanding the BOCES concept, but giving it an academic overview that will put kids into whatever 'lane' of life they feel they are good at.and can excel in. And I apologize if this sounds like tracking, but remember the student and the parents, with the help and assistance of a motivated teaching force, can develop their own goals and destinies much earlier and find the dignity of work to be one of those goals, no matter what line of 'work' or academic pursuit the child wishes to pursue.

Is this practical? Possibly not, though elements of this are currently in place, at least partially, in many parts of the country, and Germany has had elements of this program in apprenticeship programs for years. But breaking down the pedagogical walls that have existed for so long because they were convenient or made sense a hundred years ago while our academic leaders decided on universal education and the 'necessity' of college will be a challenge worthy of the space race. The union issues of teachers and the building trades will have to be addressed. Indeed, the element of the decentralized school district, local 'control' of schools, entrenched ideas about school funding are all incredible impediments to progress, here. And, there is also the idea that the countries and systems that we are 'competing' against have a totally different concept of education, freedom and liberty.

But that led me to a potential contradiction that follows: Will we need to give up some liberty to compete with much less liberal (lets call them authoritarian and be honest) societies and school systems to be competitive? Will the countries who are running their education programs top-down by government mandates always be ahead of America's concept of education and social progress as defined by our schools? I think the answer is to recognize that we have developed a system of education which restricts the freedom and innate abilities of the human being: that we have squeezed ourselves into a box of 'That's the way it's always been done' that is doing our country, our schools, our students (every blessed one of them) no real good, and that we do not need to consider less freedom as a goal, but more of the freedom which could liberate kids, parents, teachers and the American system to have its 'Sputnik moment' and move smartly into the next portion of the 21st century.

The biggest difficulty is the will to do things of this nature. We already recognize that we are 'behind' and falling farther 'behind'. The second biggest difficulty is that we haven't much time left. Nibbling at the edges of the system won't work. A massive overhaul is needed, and a change in heart about what education, computer science, American society and American values really mean to us and our children. Maybe the 'national emergency' needs to be a national convention on education overhaul. Scary, yes. Imperative, also a 'yes'.

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