Literacy and Liberty in the New Millennium
by Ferdi Serim, Editor, MultiMedia Schools

Give Your Literacy a Workout: The National Issues Forums 

Choice 1: Because no single system of education works for all children, allow parents to choose between the school that works best for their children, whether that is home schooling, or public, charter, private, religious, or for-profit schools.

See the Center for Education Reform [http://www.edreform.com], an organization that works to increase the number of schooling options that parents have for their children.

Choice 2: Hold all students to high expectations and high academic standards, which clearly define the knowledge and skills that all children must acquire at various grades. Integrate standards into courses, instructional materials, tests, and assessments for student portfolios. This approach, which essentially standardizes the nation's high expectations for all students, would put the public education system back on track in fulfilling its democratic mission: providing a useful education for children from all backgrounds.

See the Council for Basic Education [http://www.c-b-e.org], an organization that advocates new standards for core academic subjects.

Choice 3: Mend the relationship between schools and communities by establishing formal and informal programs that allow citizens and civic leaders to exchange ideas and collaborate. Use the community as a classroom. Hold classes in such places as hospitals, museums, theaters, concert halls, nature centers, public parks, newspapers, and radio and television stations. Schools should form partnerships with public and private organizations that have an educational mission, including libraries, health and motor vehicle departments, youth and religious organizations, and ethnic and cultural groups.

See the Annenberg Institute for School Reform [http://www.aisr.brown.edu], which initiates and studies community involvement efforts in schools.

Choice 4: Public education is supposed to help equalize opportunities in our democracy. In reality, schools systematically perpetuate inequality, with affluent districts providing every educational advantage, and low-income districts providing an education that leads nowhere. Schools are only as good as their teachers, and the profession needs to be strengthened. To attract the best candidates, schools must pay wages competitive with other professions. As it is, the U.S. devotes a smaller percentage of its national income to teacher salaries than all but three of 29 industrialized nations, according to a 1999 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

See the College of Education at Illinois State University [http://www.coe.ilstu.edu/boxscore.htm] that tracks the status of litigation related to school funding.

Parents and taxpayers are angry, employers and professors are frustrated, and caught in the crossfire are teachers and administrators who say they feel like scapegoats as society's expectations and problems spill into the classroom.

Public Schools: Are They Making the Grade?, National Issues Forums-[ISBN 0-7872-6394-X, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company]

If Y2K fever passed into oblivion without a whimper, our actual entry into the New Millennium is similarly anticlimactic. We see the juxtaposition of "old business" in the form of unmet challenges with the exciting parade of potentials unleashed by our ever-accelerating technological prowess (global, ubiquitous communications, bio- and nano-technology, and hothouse R&D projects). Our advances are fueled by an ever-expanding definition of literacy, and our liberty depends upon our achieving greater success in extending this literacy to all. So how are we doing?

"All the ferment on the educational scene can be summarized in 20 words: Provide more options. Seek better results. Find proof that we're getting them. Or make changes in what already exists," stated the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January 1999. Building a Learning Community that truly invites public participation is a high stakes task, fraught with difficulty. The only higher risk is attempting to build such a community without active, ongoing public support.

Without waiting for "the education establishment" (as we are collectively known to the public, whether we like it or not) to take a stand, tough questions are circulating in the public mind today:

The National Issues Forums (NIF) exemplifies the application of literacy for the preservation of liberty. NIF brings together citizens around the nation to discuss challenging social and political issues of the day. In collaboration with the Kettering Foundation, NIF has prepared a series of Issue Books, including Public Schools: Are They Making the Grade?

"Thousands of civic, service, and religious organizations, as well as libraries, high schools, and colleges, have sponsored forums. They range from small study circles to large gatherings modeled after town meetings, but all are different from everyday conversations and adversarial debates. Since forums seek to increase understanding of complicated issues, participants need not start out with detailed knowledge of an issue," states the guide. Facilitated by moderators and issue books, participants weigh several options for society to address a problem, searching for common ground, building community through public deliberation, with a goal of moving toward action. [See http://www.nifi.org and the sidebar "Give Your Literacy a Workout."]

Improving Societal Literacy
This year, the NEA is sponsoring Read Across America on March 2. Last year, 23 million children and adults participated in the program. This year's event is being planned at http://www.nea.org/readacross and offers a wonderful opportunity for us to engage our communities in solving the literacy challenge in America. Make sure you sign the Pledge and encourage others to do so. We need to examine promising practices, and our cover story "Achieving 100 Percent Literacy for All Our Children: We Guarantee It!," by Lynell Burmark, powerfully lights the way. Her article served as the source for a spotlight presentation at the Internet@Schools track of the Internet Librarian conference in Monterey this past November and will be the focus of collaborative discussions on SharedLearning.net [see http://www.sharedlearning.net/] for the month of January. Log in and join this exciting process!

Improving Our Peers' Literacy

Teachers today are expected to prepare all students to reach significantly higher academic standards than have previously been attempted in this country. The student populations that teachers are asked to work with are diverse and have complex learning needs. The range of methods and approaches and the theories of teaching and learning demand extensive intellectual preparation and continual learning on the part of teachers.

The Beliefs, Practices, and Computer Use of Teacher Leaders, Margaret Riel, Hank Becker, University of California, Irvine

In the past millennium, it was ironic to observe teachers as "the non-reading profession" and to muse about whether society's definition of "professional" extended to teachers or not. Our economic survival in a competitive global economy is undermined by the fact that American adults are among the least literate in the industrialized world, according to a 1999 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Beyond this, our social survival as a democracy is at risk when our citizens are neither prepared nor motivated to address the problems of the day. Even more so when their teachers are neither permitted nor supported in helping them to do so.
Under the right conditions—where teachers are personally comfortable and at least moderately skilled in using computers themselves, where the school's daily class schedule permits allocating time for students to use computers as part of class assignments, where enough equipment is available and convenient to permit computer activities to flow seamlessly alongside other learning tasks, and where teachers' personal philosophies support a student-centered, constructivist pedagogy that incorporates collaborative projects defined partly by student interest—computers are clearly becoming a valuable and well-functioning instructional tool.

—Findings from TLC: Is Larry Cuban Right?, by Hank Becker

Setting the Scene: Implications of Internet Usage in Public Schools 2000
How often are these "right conditions" achieved in America's classrooms? The most recent report on educational Internet Usage (QED's "Internet Usage in Public Schools 2000," 5th Edition) paints the following picture. Ninety-five percent of America's public schools, and 71 percent of its classrooms, are now connected to the Internet. Within these connected learning environments, 86 percent of the core academic subject teachers use the Internet as a teaching aid. Nearly three-quarters of these teachers access the Internet from their classrooms as well as their homes, while slightly less than half do so from computer labs or library/media centers. Regardless of where they access the Internet, they use it at least an hour per week from both school and from home. They believe that just over one-third of their students have home Internet access, and that just under two-thirds of their students spend at least an hour per week hands-on at school with the Internet. Ninety-three percent of this student Internet use is for research.

Danger: Brain-Drain Ahead!
The encouraging trends revealed in the QED report are undermined by the demographics presented at the end. Despite the fact that one in five teachers has shown the initiative to meet the challenge of learning to use the Internet as a teaching aid through self-study, and that over half of these teachers have earned a master's degree, and that 70 percent have taught for 10 or more years, and that more than 80 percent have bought computers to use at home, resulting in nearly 90 percent feeling "very or somewhat comfortable" with technology, nearly four in 10 are in range of retirement. Long before new teachers share similar experience and educational levels, these folks will be gone.

Using technology to extend literacy in schools, in our profession and in our communities, requires a new strategy that reflects this new situation. The good news is the technology is being used as it becomes more widely available. The tough question remains: Is it being used effectively?

Although student access to computers has increased by subject area (ranging from a high of 92 percent for Language Arts to a low of 86 percent in Science) and by location (with 78 percent of classrooms, 70 percent of labs, and 69 percent of library/media centers providing student access), the fact that most teachers report being self-taught is reflected in student patterns of use. For example, the information literacy skills that help people move beyond reliance on search engines are not likely to be encountered in a self-taught scenario. Therefore, it is not surprising that these teachers direct their students to the same Web sites (predominantly search engine portals) they have incorporated into their research regimen.

The most powerful uses of the Internet, which go beyond accessing information and lead to the construction of knowledge, remain largely untapped.

The knowledge transmission view of learning emphasizes teacher-centered whole-class explanation and closely scripted student seatwork. Classroom teachers who define instruction as the transmission of knowledge have students learn concepts and skills th0rough listening, copying text, and practicing sets of similar problems. Classroom teachers who define instruction as the co-construction of knowledge focus on project activities that expect students to display understanding, interpretation, and original thought.


The study details both Internet use by teachers, and teachers' beliefs about student Internet use. Nearly three-quarters of teachers using the Internet for teaching access it from their classrooms as well as from home. Interestingly, the report states "the location [where] teachers are least likely to access the Internet, across all grade levels, is the library/media center, even though there are twice the number of computers available than are in their classrooms." Considering the vital role information literacy plays in effective Internet use, this is a disturbing disconnect worthy of further study and intervention. See March 1999 MMS for Mike Eisenberg's call to action (recommending the formation of IT teams comprised of teachers, library/media specialists and administrators), which provides a compelling vision for turning this situation around.

We play a pivotal role in providing precisely the expertise needed to support literacy and liberty in our society. We can't do so by only talking to each other, or seeking the safety of silence. We can choose from any of several options to share the gifts our work with students, parents and peers has provided. The path chosen is not as important as taking the first steps, wherever they may lead!

Communications to the author may be addressed to: Ferdi Serim, MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/466-1901; fax: 505/466-1901; ferdi@infotoday.com.

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