The mythical magic calculus pill.

There’s a New York school district which is providing iPads to all sixth graders as a pilot program, and intends to expand the experiment to all students if successful. The current fascination with tablet computers seems to me the latest in a long and exhausting search for the next, great technology or teaching method that will magically improve academic performance in schools. I doubt  iPads will instantly turn children into better scholars.

Maybe I’m wrong and a new generation of applications on tablet computers will provide the technological equivalent of one-on-one tutoring and single-handedly raise math scores across the country. Who is to say though, that the child who struggles with old-fashioned paper homework or doesn’t have parents who insist he do the work will persevere when the same exercises are presented on the iPad? It seems to me that this faith in the latest gadget betrays far too much confidence in stage-craft and colorful visual effects. Learning something new is hard work for children as well as adults. A touch-screen may make material more accessible, but it doesn’t make it any easier. At the risk of coming across as a curmudgeon, I will note that American public schools seem to be far better equipped and funded than my school ever was, and I attended an elite private school in India’s largest and richest city (though one that remains immeasurably poor by American standards).

Which brings me to the environment outside school. Growing up in socialist India, we had little by way of entertainment, a couple of state-run television channels and a rather limited selection of books. That is certainly no longer the case, and many Indian households receive hundreds of cable channels today. I can’t imagine what it is like to have a constant river of entertainment to distract you from schoolwork. Parents today clearly need to keep much closer tabs on how their children are spending their time.

The sheer paucity of entertainment and media seemed to have led my generation in certain directions. I remember having to read the newspaper every morning by the time I was eleven. I wonder how many households have a broadsheet delivered at home every morning, and where children are getting their understanding of current affairs from. Is it the televised news shows which are so light on content, but heavy on stagecraft and packed with remarkably handsome presenters? A recurring news story this week on major network news in New York City was the story of a young girl’s service dog who mauled the neighbor’s daughter (in New Jersey). It amazes me that network news supposedly covering a diverse city of 8 million routinely chooses to present stories better suited for the neighborhood block association’s pamphlet. In general, the focus is increasingly skewed towards entertainment and sports rather heavily in the vast majority of modern households. How could it not be, our culture imposes no costs on entertaining ourselves endlessly as adults.

Of course exceptions exist. There are certainly parents who spend most of their time thinking up learning activities for their children, and they are not always Asian or first-generation immigrants. We all know parents who quiz their children on homework, drill them on mathematics, limit pure entertainment and generally send a clear signal that academics and learning are important.  But realistically speaking, what proportion of households does this describe? If most children are growing up in households where reality television, entertainment news and sports are on tap, is it realistic to expect that our teachers and schools can keep students motivated on the hard work of learning? We expect a lot of our children if we imagine that even those who gain deep inner satisfaction from inquiry and learning can resist the allure of competitive sport and entertainment.

For an earlier generation, astronauts, scientists and explorers provided alternative role-models to media celebrities, I know they did for me. Most children take their cues from the social context around them, and school is only one of them. If every adult conversation outside of school revolves around sports and entertainment figures, can teachers alone be expected to tilt the balance of a child’s attention towards science and math?

The Times and a number of other papers have successfully petitioned the courts to release the names of teachers and how well their classes are doing. I expect the goal is to figure out which teachers have classes that are under-performing. No doubt there are teachers within the school system who have lost the drive to teach, or never were particularly effective. But why doesn’t anyone ever talk about the teachers who struggle with distracted, unmotivated students leaving school for households where expectations are low.

All the focus on teaching methods, tools, resources, the relative talents of teachers and school systems seem to miss one essential fact. Learning for most students will boil down to hard work and practice. Exceptional teachers can deliver exceptional results, but at the end of the day, all of us learn by working at a concept and practicing it over and over again. Calculus isn’t easy to learn, but if you keep working away at problems, eventually you get the hang of it, and at some point it begins to make sense. Yet I get the distinct impression that many feel the answer to low math scores should be better math teachers, or a magic calculus pill. In reality, at least half the solution has to be students working harder at math. Our conscious brains require engagement and practice to absorb knowledge or learn a new skill. There is no magic pill that will do that.

There are no simple, satisfying answers to how American public education can be improved. There are no silver bullets, nor will endless teacher or management shake-ups be effective in isolation. Any reorganization is doomed to failure unless the broader cultural context, home environment and community tilt towards emphasizing math, science and student achievement. Many of those clamoring for reform are fond of applying commercial logic to the education system. Perhaps though, the problem is not with our education factories, but that the target consumers don’t want the product. The schools alone cannot drive students to perform better, their parents and community have to expect and demand it of them as well. This to me is the crucial difference.

It is a futile exercise to worry about our schools. Rather, we should be worried about our students and whether they can overcome an environment saturated with entertainment and distractions to do enough work that they acquire an education for themselves. Which brings me back to how the question is normally phrased. Everyone accepts that it’s American schools that are failing. That seems to be the easy phrasing, especially when the “problem” can be isolated to specific schools. Perhaps the more meaningful question to ask is why certain students are failing American school standards. Schools cannot fix problems with the wider community, they may help, but they will not magically turn a crop of students into academic super-stars if the community around them does not value academic achievement and encourage it.