29 August 2009

Edward Kennedy

On a June night in 1980 I was a young guy living in Brooklyn and Ted Kennedy was a United States Senator running for President. A friend and I were crashing the primary election party at a Midtown Manhattan hotel.

For reasons lost in memory this involved an elevator ride up to the top. On our way down the elevator stopped and Ted Kennedy and Paul O'Dwyer got on. As we looked in shock, Ted put out his hand and greeted us. He asked our names, where we lived, what we were doing. He asked about my Brooklyn neighborhood - an edge of the Bed-Stuy community his brother Bobby had done so much to help - and how I felt living there. Even after we reached the ballroom level we stood there, Ted asking questions, and listening.

It was no more than ten minutes of my life - less certainly - and surely not my only celebrity meet, but I learned something essential in that encounter. Or, should I say, learned it again.

As a child I would watch my father enter a pub, a pub anywhere, or enter any other social situation, and I would hear him ask questions, and I would watch him listen. If I watched for an hour I would see him learn all about the people who surrounded him. "There is no one you meet," my father told me, "who you can not learn from."

Like Ted Kennedy, my Da had his demons, Like Ted Kennedy he had suffered through nightmare tragedies. Like Ted Kennedy his life was certainly filled with mistakes. Yet, like Ted Kennedy he had two touchstones which ruled his life - his love of his family and his commitment to the idea that everyone on the planet deserved not just political and legal respect, but human respect and personal respect.

My father touched a small circle of relatives and community in relative anonymity. Ted Kennedy touched hundreds of millions across America, across Ireland, and around the world. But that scale is not really a difference.

We are all born to differing circumstances, and opportunities will never be equal. Ted Kennedy had chances to touch those millions through the circumstances of his birth and his life and my father had chances to touch those he touched through the circumstances of his. But both used those opportunities to learn, to teach, to fight, and to make those who surrounded them feel less alone in the world.

I don't have the magic skills of either of these men. I have a harder time 'meeting' a room, approaching strangers, making people comfortable. But I have learned the trick to the magic of a life well lived.

So I try to listen as well as I can. And I try to ask questions that allow the people I meet to be who they are and need to be. And throughout my life I have tried to do work which allows me to contribute to the world I dream can become reality.

My son is fond of quoting the first few words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:
"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

'"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

"He didn't say any more but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought--frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon--for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth."
"Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope." Now neither myself nor my son was born to what most would describe as "advantages." I grew up with six living in barely four rooms. My son has experienced lack of many material things and many losses. But both of us know the advantages we were born to, and like Ted Kennedy and like my father, we know the responsibilities which come with those advantages.

And for me that responsibility begins with listening. With the willingness to listen. With the capacity to learn from anyone. With the capacity to be surprised and delighted by the new discovery. With that "reserving judgment." With belief in our shared humanity. And with hope.

On Monday - or whenever - as I walk through my university building, as you walk through your school - remember that all of those children, those students, are humans with stories, and voices, and things to teach us all.

And let us pause, and listen.

May God welcome home our brother Ted. I hope he and my Da meet and share a heavenly pint.

- Ira Socol

27 August 2009

Othering Texts (a brief history)

Liz Kolb asked on Twitter today about how schools choose what to spend their time on... I wish I had time for an original response but I wanted to at least post this, a section of an article I wrote last year (titled "Literacy (as) Tyranny"). It speaks to part of the construction of "worth" we abuse our students with:

In his 1998 book, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gansta-Rap, 1830-1996, John Springhall describes the cycle of destabilizing effects which arrive with each change in media delivery or popular content form. Reviewing the book, Charles Hatfield sums it up, “The advent of new communications media has proved especially threatening to visions of ideal childhood, for children's use of such media tends to be early and formative. Such early exposure challenges the mediation of parents, teachers and other authorities, and often incites adult panic.”

In order for a society to invest in schools, a perceived need must exist. In order for society to invest in a system of social reproduction, a perceived need must exist. In order for a society to make “literacy” a priority, a perceived need must exist.

What is the need which pushes a society to make these decisions?

Is the need transmission of culture? Is the need transmission of a work ethic? Is the need preparation of trained workers? Is the need development of compliant citizens?

Or is the need the development of creativity? Of personal voice? Is the goal to allow for multiple representations? Multiple ideas of knowledge?
“Learning is not to be found on a printout. It's not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books. And from teachers, and the more learned and empathetic the better. And from work, concentrated work. Abigail Adams put it perfectly more than 200 years ago: "Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence." Ardor, to my mind, is the key word.”

“Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.”

“Last fall the National Endowment for the Arts issued a sobering report linking flat or declining national reading test scores among teenagers with the slump in the proportion of adolescents who said they read for fun.”(see article)
-McCullough, D. (2008) The Love of Learning. Commencement Speech at Boston College, Boston, Massachusetts
One of the ways to ask about a society’s perceived purpose of literacy and education is to see which texts are “included” in curricula and which are left out. A look at Puritan New England in the seventeenth century, for example, would find only the Bible and books of Common Prayer “included,” and all other “popular literature” (whether printed or oral) doubted as to its moral value (Wright 1920). A look at late nineteenth century American culture would find the works of Horatio Alger – with their emphasis on moral judgment, hard work, and capitalist success – “included” but other ‘dime novels’ – filled as they were with rebellion, freedom, and independent lives – quite firmly excluded (Springhall, 1998).

In 1960s and 70s America, books that told of rebellion and creativity within the basic shape of American society – from Fitzgerald to Hemingway – were “included.” Those which threatened those boundaries, either in written style or content, whether old or new – whether Dos Passos or Kerouac – were excluded.

This split is also obvious when we see ‘preferred forms.’ Early New England thought songs were slothful, while celebrating the fixed nature of print. Turn of the twentieth century America thought books, especially expensive books, far more worthwhile than vaudeville or early film. Much was made in the last half of the twentieth century of youth wasting their lives on television as book reading declined.

Often, forms of communication perceived as “easier” by the elites are derided. Socrates thought reading far easier than memorizing, and since that time, reading has consistently been seen as “more difficult” (and thus more worthy) than listening or watching. Film classes are considered “easier” than literature classes. Art History as “easier” than literary history. Books with larger words – more “difficult” vocabulary, are considered more valuable than “easier” fare – and surely more valuable than a graphic novel.

The question is – is difficulty for a large part of the population a legitimate measure of worth? Or is it a system of preserving and/or controlling power?

- Ira Socol [copyright 2008 Ira David Socol]

Springhall, J. (1998) Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gansta-Rap, 1830-1996. St. Martin’s Press. New York.
Hatfield, C. (2002) Book Review. Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gansta-Rap, 1830-1996. The Lion and the Unicorn. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore

17 August 2009

The Demons of the Duncan Contradiction and Teacher Education

In a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature on teacher certification, an Alexandria, Virginia English teacher named Patrick Welsh unwittingly presents, in one clear paragraph, the problem with the Obama Administration’s educational policies.

“The credentialing game in public education may have once been a well-meaning effort to create some measurable criteria to maintain standards, but it has turned into an absurd process that forces both teachers and administrators to waste time jumping through hoops that have little or no relation to their job performance.”

Welsh, a Washington Post Blogger often deeply frustrated with educational change (he openly worries about schools with “too much technology”) is writing to oppose teacher certification requirements and – by extension – teacher training in and of itself. He spells out his hoped for situation: “A good start to ensure that schools get the best people in the classrooms would be to stop filtering candidates through personnel offices obsessed with education courses and “certification,” and allow individual schools to advertise for the positions they need, and then allow principals along with panels of teachers to hire enthusiastic candidates who exhibit knowledge and love of their subject and a passion for communicating that knowledge and love to students.”

The fact that Welsh can quote only a couple of locally observed anecdotes in defense of his position while others in the debate – taking the other side – can back their positions up with data is not the problem for the Obama administration. The problem is simply that Arne Duncan is taking opposite sides in the same debate: On hand he is arguing that teacher credentialing is unimportant, that traditional paths to teaching are no longer valid, that testing of new teachers for certification no longer has a place. Yet, his other hand is insisting on the most traditional measures of student achievement and teacher evaluation. Anyone with “enthusiasm” and “knowledge” can become a teacher in Duncan’s view, but every student must jump through annual hoops and certify themselves on achievement tests or both the student and his or her teacher fail. A funhouse mirror of education policies.

Which is it Mr. Obama? Are standardized tests and standardized curricula valid? Is it essential that all students attend a certain amount of school before they can claim some sort of certification? Or should a student be able to simply prove that they are “enthusiastic” and “exhibit knowledge”? Do I need to attend Mr. Welsh's classes at T.C. Williams High School or may I just read and write on my own until I satisfy my own preparatory needs for university?

Put another way, how do you tell a student that they must complete a specific set of courses, send a specific number of hours, days, years in school, pass a certain test – if that student’s teachers have had to do none of that in order to hold their present position?

Or in its most simple form – the argument for alternative certification for teachers, and the argument for “outsider run schools” (Charters), are clearly arguments for less standardization in school curricula and school assessment. The argument is that “school” – as we now understand it – is not the appropriate place to learn for many of our students – whether those are K-12 students or future educators. That standardized curricula, evaluations, and assessments are bad preparation for life and bad measures of capability - again, for K-12 students or future educators.

As for me – I believe in alternative teacher certification just as I believe in alternative educational opportunities for all students. And I believe in high expectations – for K-12 students and for new teachers – but I put little faith in industrial standards, whether those be the standards for a high school diploma (Did you come to class often enough? Did you do enough homework to make your algebra teacher happy?), a college degree (Did you click enough times in your Intro to Sociology lecture?), a PhD (Have you mastered APA Style, or is MLA?), or a teacher certification (Are you very good at sitting for very long tests?).

But I also know that teaching is the most important profession a society has. And I know that after a very selective, very extensive, and very expansive five-year program of teacher education, our Michigan State University College of Education grads are still often missing a great deal of information we wish we could find time to get in. Learning to be a great teacher is just a difficult thing. Why anyone would imagine you could become a great teacher in fewer years than you would need to become a great doctor is beyond my understanding.

So I want better teacher education programs. I want more flexible teacher education programs. I want teacher education programs more adapted to the diverse needs of the diverse people we want to attract into teaching. And I want teacher education programs with much more time spent in actual K-12 classrooms.

Just as I want better public schools. More flexible public schools. Public schools not tied to standardized tests and public schools with diverse choices meeting the needs of diverse learners. And I want public schools more firmly connected to the world our students live and learn in.

But my goal is not to eliminate either teacher training or public schools. Eliminating those institutions will not make either better – and eliminating either or both will not improve education at all.

- Ira Socol

13 August 2009

Fiction Interlude: Back-to-School

Two childhood views of the classroom, as we head back to school...


He sat in the back of the classroom. Sometimes staring at the fluorescent lights flickering and humming above. Sometimes looking out the window toward the traffic flowing on the street beyond the playground. Sometimes following patterns invisible to others in the woodgrain of his desk or in the tiles of the floor or in the cotton of his jeans.

Beyond him he knew the teacher was usually talking. That other kids were reading or writing, passing notes or hitting each other, talking or rolling pencils off the desk so that they could bend down and pick them up. He knew that numbers and letters and words were being tossed around, but none of it could really touch his attention. He knew that he didn't need them anyway. He told his own stories as he watched his worlds, he added and divided his own sums as he let time wander, he found his own sciences as he watched the earth spin through its day. And he knew that the teacher knew that if she tried to force these things his way, he had very good ways to resist.

So there he sat. Holding an uneasy truce with his captors. Waiting for the best days, the rainy days, when water would streak across the window and the passing cars and trucks would toss spray in the air, and when he was finally paroled at the final bell he could walk slowly home, letting the water from the sky bathe him in its chill embrace.


It's 8:17. See, I can tell time. Nobody thinks I can do anything. But that's not true. It's 8:17 and I know school's only been in for seven minutes but I also know I need to be out of here in less than forty-five minutes. Yes, time and arithmetic. Because I need to be on my way by 9:00 so I can meet Derek by 9:30 so we can catch the bus to the subway and be on the way downtown by only a little after 10:00. That's the plan and I've got less than forty-five minutes.

Sam's coming past me and here's chance number one. I stick my foot between his and trip him, he falls in a wild, uncoordinated sprawl, knocking over Tina's desk, books flying. I'm not ready to be obvious yet, so I just smile.

The smile sets Mrs. Girardi off, not that this takes much. But the key here is I can't just get sent to the Resource Room. If I get sent there I'll need to start all over and besides, you know, the standards are different there. I'll need to work much harder. So when Mrs. Girardi says, "What is the matter with you? Are you so stupid you think that's funny?" I prove my growing vocabulary skills with the response, "I'm so stupid I think it's hilarious." Which of course gets this entire class of fifth graders, except Sam who's still on the floor, and Tina, who's glaring at me, into a fit of hysterical laughter.

This teacher is beyond predictable so I can stay ahead easily. She starts to scream. I start to scream back. She tells me to come up front. I tell her to come back to me. When she actually starts to come toward me (can you believe she'd fall for that), I get up and start running around the room. The fact that the class is still laughing is making her crazy. She sure doesn't like laughter. So she actually chases me for half a lap before figuring something out.

They all say I "make bad decisions." Everybody says that. But they're wrong about that too. I make decisions they don't like, but they're not bad. Sometimes they're really carefully made decisions designed to get me exactly what I need. Right now I need to get out of this school so I can run with Derek who got suspended yesterday for the rest of the week. He did it by punching out Kenny DeMuro. I'd rather not do that. Kenny looks like he's still hurting.

Now I need to make sure. I need to give the principal no choice once he gets the phone call. I need less lecture time from him and more of that "oh my God" look because that'll only take ten minutes. He'll call home. Nobody'll be there. He'll say "go straight home" in that very intense voice, as if he thinks I think he doesn't know. Really, he knows I know he knows, but he's got to sound like he's doing his job. And if he's going to do his job, I've got to do mine. I pick a book off Carrie's desk and toss it, not hard but accurately, at Mrs. Girardi, who immediately screams, in her best psycho mode, "You're out of here you little moron, you'll be gone for at least a week." And I take off right out the door, right under the clock: 8:23.

Alone and Out are copyright 2005-2009 by Ira David Socol for use with permission only

More - but not much recent - fiction is at Ira's Narrator Blog. The Drool Room and A Certain Place of Dreams are available from Amazon.

08 August 2009

Social Reproduction

Schools do not really "prepare our children for the future." Schools, by their very nature, tend to help society reproduce itself - passing the structures, morals, habits, customs, preferences, and even manners of one generation on to the next, or at least strongly attempting to do that.

Much of what we do in schools is designed to further the mission of "social reproduction" - one generation effectively reproducing itself in the next. We create "grade level expectations" based on the performance of children of the past and hold contemporary students to that - holding them back or trying to rush them forward - but holding them. We enforce our own technological preferences, frustrating and limiting the possible success of students most pulled toward future possibilities. We enforce a system of manners created by and for a power structure which existed two generations ago (back when administrators and legislators went to school). We grade homework which guarantees that those children with the most successful parents will do better in school. We evaluate learning using test forms and test content most familiar to the children of the ruling class. And, of course, teachers and administrators - typically among the "best" students of the previous two generations - recreate the classroom and school environments in which they succeeded. From the "old school tie" to "no baseball caps" to reading A Separate Peace, to memorizing times tables, to creating proper footnotes.

In other words - as expected - we prepare our children for our own adulthood. An adulthood in which society - with its present "winners" and "losers" - is essentially unchanged.

If that was not frustrating enough for those of us who might imagine a future of equal opportunity and equitable treatment, many of the "reforms" currently being championed in education are designed to maximize social reproduction, not reduce it.

Charter Schools, for example, whatever their positive impacts, further the divide between those with "motivated" parents and those without. If you agree that Charters provide new opportunities you must also admit that sending a child to a charter requires active parental decision-making, and often significant parental commitments in terms of transportation and costs (there are costs to getting a child to an 'out-of-district' school, both direct and collateral - time lost for working, etc). So charters, if they succeed, continue the American pattern of offering better educations to students based on the student's parents behavior - thus continuing to doom children on the basis of the accidents of their birth. You can't get more socially reproductive than that.

Standards-based Accountability, as another example. When standards are "raised" and "enforced" these are the standards of the previous generations, and the standards of those in power. As are our methods of measuring children against these standards. Our tests do not measure contemporary search or communication skills. They do not measure creativity. They do not measure social skills. Rather, they measure a stunningly narrow selection of skills and content which school leaders are good at and school leaders know. It is as if we have determined that the standard for success in our society are the test question writers at the College Board. That means that we are measuring our students based not on the skills and knowledge they will need during their lives, but rather measuring them on their personality proximity to those born to attend private schools and Ivy League colleges and born ready for good jobs in their daddy's company.

Remember, measuring is only "fair" when two things are true: First, the starting line must be the same for all those being measured. And we all know that in a nation with gigantic disparities in wealth, resources, and power - such as the United States - that this is impossible in education. Second, what is being measured must be measurable by some universally understood "code of practice." As Danish novelist Peter Høeg says, "When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement." Think about it: Is completing a test in 60 minutes provably superior to completing the same test in 72 minutes? Is knowing the narrative behind a bad John Knowles novel from the 1950s provably superior to knowing the narrative behind World of Warcraft? Is being able to use the Dewey Decimal System provably superior to being able to conduct efficient Google searches? Is typing on a keyboard using ten fingers provably superior to typing on a keypad with your thumbs?

If your "code of conduct" is solely based in personal - or even generational - preference, you are being unbearably socially reproductive.

Homework and Zero-Tolerance are a third example. Three students bring the same third grade (8-year-old) homework home from school. Student "A" come home to a college-educated parent, who sits down with the student and works through the assignment with him. Student "B" leaves school and walks her kindergarten brother home, then takes care of him until bedtime. Single mom comes home at 10 pm from her job at Walmart. Student "C" brings the homework back to a home where no one speaks or reads English. Whose homework is likely to look "better" to the teacher?

Many "reformers" argue for things like "more homework" and stricter behavior policies as a way of improving schools. These "increased standards" are somehow supposed to solve all the social and economic problems of the last generation which our schools and our societies have failed. Forcing parents with few skills, no resources, and no time, to become instantly "responsible" as the US President hopes (imagines?).

Student "A" comes from a loving, middle-class home where both parents have more than a month of vacation time per year. Student "B" has an alcoholic parent who beats him. Student "C" is part of a homeless family, sleeping in various shelters each cold night and in the car on warm nights. Which student is more likely to run afoul of school rules each day?
Back when he was mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani promoted a theory of policing called "One City" - an idea, which holds great appeal to many Americans, that everyone be treated "equally." But "equal" isn't always fair, or reasonable, or moral. As a previous - and far more moral -New York mayor once said, "Suppose I have two children, and one is very, very sick and the other is perfectly healthy, is it reasonable if I treat them as if there is no difference?" (I paraphrase the late John V. Lindsay here. Mr. Lindsay also promoted the classic phrase for improving our communal society, "Give a damn.")

"Equal" is not "equitable." "One standard" is not fair, neither is one set of requirements or assignments. Treating children "equally" guarantees that the results for this generation will pretty much match the results for the last generation.

This is political.

"School reformers" who find themselves allied with the American right-wing - whether Ted Kennedy who found common cause with George W. Bush on "No Child Left Behind" or economically left-wing minorities who jump on the Charter School, KIPP, and Michelle Rhee bandwagons - need to look around and wonder why these people are marching alongside them.

Because education is the most political of all issues, and if a person identifies themselves as a "conservative" - that is as someone who either does not want society to change or wants society to revert to a previous state of existence - then an inherent part of that is ensuring the current status of groups within that society - especially the poor (think America before the Great Society or before the New Deal), minorities (think America before the Civil Rights Act), and the "disabled" (think America before the ADA and Section 504). Let's face it - the past was only a sweet memory if you were white, middle-class or better, and typically-abled.

In order to change relative status within a society that society must actually change in significant ways. In order to change relative status within a society education must be the least socially reproductive that is possible. In order to change relative status within a society people must be treated according to their needs, not according to the pronouncements of those seeking to maintain their own power.

So consider this, in everything you do in education - are you measuring students and their learning, or are you measuring parents and their status. If you keep that question in mind at every decision-point, you will probably find that you need to change most of what you do.

Which, as you know, is my target.

- Ira Socol

02 August 2009

Ten Years After

In August of 1999 in Mackinac Hall on the campus of Grand Valley State University, a small group of professors, students, and tech people - the Center for Research in Educational and Adaptive Technology-assisted Environments (create@gvsu) - hosted two large seminars. One for interested area K-12 teachers and school librarians, the other for all those faculty members teaching Freshman English courses.

In both day-long seminars we introduced people to the tools of the new century. We discussed new curricular needs, such as helping students distinguish between the already familiar Yahoo! web directory (a library catalogued with the Library of Congress system) and the year-or-so old Google idea - a true search engine. Understanding the differences, we suggested, was an essential new research and life skill. We also demonstrated how to get students to benefit most from built in computer tools - spellcheck and grammar check in Microsoft Word - organizing themselves with Outlook - using outlining tools to help notetaking on laptop computers.

And in both we demonstrated new "Assistive Technologies" to support the needs of differing students. We had just installed - on at least two computers in every university computer lab - WYNN for text-to-speech, ViaVoice for speech recognition, Zoom-Text for screen magnification and screen reading, IBM's original talking web browser, and Graph-Link - which connected your Texas Instruments calculators to the computer - allowing screen enlargement and copying of information.

Then we brought out our new hardware. Sophisticated headsets with noise-reducing microphones. Scanners capable of converting printed text into digital - readable - text. BigKey keyboards and Dvorak keyboards. Trackballs and alternative "mouse" devices. Laptops with infrared communications systems.

We talked about how we felt that tools such as these were going to revolutionize our ideas about ability and who might succeed in post-secondary education.

And so for the GVSU Freshman English faculty we discussed how a teacher might see a student struggling - what to look for - and what to recommend. For our K-12 participants we discussed how IEPs might be re-written to introduce this technology to students so that access to curriculum didn't slip away.

And I remember that we went further - suggesting that the days of "computer labs" in schools were already past, and that standard machine set-ups made no sense. Our university Academic Computing director talked about "laptops for everyone," or at least student network log-ons which allowed personalized software for every student. He pointed out that we had learned that computers were not just the "fantastic notebooks" we had envisioned when we began our research a year before, but also, "the textbook and library of the future."

People were dazzled. The buzz in the rooms was amazing. Oh yes, people were legitimately concerned about costs - legitimately because, in 1999, these were expensive things. Expensive memory, expensive sound cards, $120 a piece headsets, massive CRT monitors, even special attachments which allowed for front-side computer audio connections and multiple keyboard plug-ins. Wireless networking wasn't yet available, T3 lines were extravagances, laptops easily cost $2,000 or more.

Dr. Michael Wesch and K-State state the obvious

But still, people saw a future, and they were excited.

Now it is August 2009. And I'm not reminiscing for old times' sake.

In the ten years since we held those summer events everything we talked about has become easy. Under $200 netbooks and mobile phones can now do most or all of what we were discussing back then. Wireless systems have cut the cost of networking classrooms by 90%. Broadband has become stunningly cheap. Microsoft Vista (and Windows7) computers come with speech recognition included. Click-Speak and WordTalk offer Text-To-Speech for free. Ctrl-+ magnifies your Firefox screen. We have proven research into the advantages of 1:1 computing and simple text-messaging plans can deliver educational content to cheap mobile phones anywhere on the planet.

And yet - the transformation has not occurred. In fact, education has, in too many situations, dug in its heels, screaming that it will not be dragged into this future.

Schools still depend on "computer labs" and resist 1:1 computing, hand-helds, and mobiles as "distracting." Schools still install computers - tens of thousands this summer alone - which are not equipped with even the free access technologies - the moral equivalent of building inaccessible school entrances and school toilets. Schools continue to deny students access to curricular content and school success because they refuse to suggest and/or offer proven technology solutions.

We weren't genius futurists back in the summer of 1999.

We were just a group of curious people who were paying attention to what was already going on. We read the work of Lynne Anderson-Inman extensively, we read court cases and Office of Civil Rights opinions, we used the phone to call the Liberated Learning people at IBM, the TTS folks at Arkenstone, the people installing student computers at UCLA. We saw the future emerging because we had decided to open our eyes.

And when we saw that future we also looked around our own campus. We saw that students wanted internet everywhere - so, back in those pre-wireless days - we put dozens of data drops in every public area and made sure that there was one dorm room drop for every bed. We saw that students wanted personalization so when you logged on to our network, you got your desktop, not anyone else's. We saw that "disabled" students were tired of going to "resource centers" and so we put access everywhere we had computers. And we already knew that few students typed with ten fingers or wanted to study in "clean rooms" devoid of food, drink, or music, or knew how to effectively search. None of this information was hidden either. It was as obvious as walking across the campus.

I understand that progress comes slowly.

But as I lie in bed here, recovering from knee surgery, I look back on a decade of arguments which seem to get increasingly disconnected from the emerging realities. Back in 1999 the cost was a factor, but now it is truly not. Schools actually ban students from bringing their own technologies, and spend a fortune on blocking software and on email systems they could have for free. Back in 1999 ideas like Google were new and confusing - now ignorance of these systems requires willful intent. Back in 1999 one might have been unsure of where this information revolution was leading - now we know our students will not survive - academically or economically - without the skillsets which support these technologies.

These realities have pushed most education beyond the point of irrelevance. Our economic stars are now all dropouts - at one level of schooling or another. Our inventors are all self-taught. And we have made no actual progress on closing achievement or salary gaps, or on getting more students through post-secondary training or education.

In the summer of 1999 we were talking about the future. Now that future is the present. Next summer it will be the second decade of the 21st Century... is it time to move out of the past yet?

- Ira Socol