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To improve education, we must make school less boring

Marcelo Surez-OrozcoMarcelo Surez-Orozco is dean and a distinguished professor of education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. He is the author of many books including "Educating the Whole Child for the Whole World." This op-ed appeared in U.S. News & World Report on Sept. 19, 2013.
Millions of youngsters are heading back to school eager to start a new academic year. Many will thrive but too many will succumb to the epidemic of boredom threatening students in schools throughout our country. Boredom in schools – the opposite of the behavioral, cognitive and relational engagement that predicts long-term educational persistence and success – is surely behind the steady decline of our education system on the world stage. While we all have our favorite school, can recall an engaging teacher or a visionary principal, the system as a whole is not working.
Once the envy of the world, the United States is now educationally behind in measure after measure, from preschool to college. The global gap starts early indeed: 81 percent of children in the developed world enrolled in preschool last year, while only 69 percent were enrolled in the U.S. Whereas two generations ago we led the world in the percentage of high school graduates, today we are at a mediocre 11th place. More alarming are projections recently released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: Among those 25 years of age and younger we now rank an abysmal 23rd in the estimates of youth and emerging adults who will complete high school over their life time. In Los Angeles, the nation's second largest unified school district, only 64 percent of the class of 2014 is on-track for graduation. Two generations ago our country ranked third in the world in college graduation rates, but comparative OECD data show that less than 50 percent of Americans 25-to-34-year-olds have completed college. While 31 percent of college students drop out in the world's high-income countries, in the U.S. over 50 percent will drop out.
Of course, every generation claims education is more important than ever before. Today is no different: Nearly all of the basic indicators of wellness, productivity and socio-economic mobility are linked to education. From the flourishing of children, to the ability of the citizenry to act intelligently and deliberatively on the pressing issues of the day, education is the sine qua non. Furthermore, in times of economic decline, as Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has argued, "the economic strength of any nation depends on the skills of its people."
Here is the heart of the problem: Walk into any American school and ask students to complete the sentence, "School is ________." The most common answer will be "boring." The test-driven, market-oriented education reform of late has contributed to a culture of boredom in schools that is asphyxiating the cognitive engagement of too many American kids. Authentic learning and autonomous inquiry now take the back seat to test prepping and test taking. If you think the current cheating scandals plaguing even our elite exam schools (such as Stuyvesant in New York City) are the biggest indictment against the test-driven mania, think again.
Boredom is the elephant in the (class)room.
To get beyond boredom will be a steep climb. Here are four domains in which we need to do better or we will continue to decline in the international arena:
First, kids are bored in schools but are overly engaged with (read: addicted to) computer games and social media. To make the tools that engage this generation of kids educationally meaningful, we need to turn computer science into a core academic competency. In the biggest technological intervention in the history of American education, the Los Angeles Unified School District will invest millions of dollars to purchase over 700,000 iPads – one for every student. But such an investment is unlikely to be effective – students are already avid technology consumers – without a paradigm-shifting plan aimed to turn every student into a creator and producer of technology. Research by Jane Margolis and her colleagues suggest that this will require a more rigorous, engaging and stepped-up curriculum for all students. We need to teach our students to go beyond boring, rudimentary computing skills and simply using applications, and instead teach them the problem-solving, logical thinking and creativity that are at the heart of innovation. Schools in Stockholm's immigrant-and-refugee-rich districts are far ahead of us in the use of technologies in classrooms where the most disadvantaged students are concentrated.
Second, foreign language learning is declining. We are wasting our linguistic capital. While our global cities, New York, Los Angeles and to a lesser extent Chicago, are home to all the world's major languages thanks to our vibrant immigrant communities, by the third generation the vast majority our Asian and Latino-origin Americans will have lost the mastery of their ancestral languages. To paraphrase Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, Los Angeles and New York are now the world's largest cemetery for languages: where German, Japanese and Italian died a century ago, Spanish, Mandarin and Korean are slowly dying today. Linguistic diversity when coupled with the geographic endowment of cities like L.A., San Francisco and Seattle at the crossroads of Asia and Latin America is a real advantage that we are letting go to waste. In the economies and societies of the 21st century, speaking only one language is a clear handicap. Brain researchers have documented the cognitive advantages of speaking more than one language, and new research soon to be published by Patricia Gndara and Rebecca Callahan shows there are also economic advantages to bilingualism. Bilingual workers are both paid and valued more. Bilingual workers are 75 percent more likely to be hired than their monolingual peers with the same skills. Additionally, research shows that Latino students who achieve bilingual competency are less likely to drop out of school and are more likely to attend college and earn more than their monolingual peers. We need to make our global cities, starting with New York and L.A., our country's reservoirs for world languages – but try to sign up in either city to learn Mandarin, Hindustani, Arabic, or Spanish and you will have to wait months, if not years.
Third, we need to prioritize early childhood education. In terms of school readiness and early critical literacy-enriching experiences, we lag behind the gold-standard programs of cities like Italy's Reggio Emilia – the world's beacon for early childhood education. When kids are not ready, boredom and disengagement can become endemic. What follows too often is not life-long learning but life-long catching up. Engagement is the only way to close an achievement gap among low-income immigrant and marginalized children of color that is already evident by age three, when a majority score well below their white peers in vocabulary, letter recognition and early numeracy skills. Studies suggest that the timing, duration and quality of childcare settings are indispensable to boosting school readiness. In a classic study, economist James Heckman has shown that every dollar invested in quality early-childhood development for disadvantaged children produces a seven to 10 percent return, per child, per year, per dollar invested.
Lastly, the American teaching profession needs support for a culture change. When the world looks for a 21st-century education model that works for all children there is no better example than Finland, where teachers work in highly professionalized teams involving psychologists, social workers, and nurses – all continuously supported by the public and the government, well remunerated, and backed by strong unions. Teachers are the pride of Finland. In contrast, our American teachers are dispirited.
Bored kids and dispirited teachers are a bad, bad combination.
Turning our kids into makers of technology, saving our languages, investing wisely in early childhood education, and honoring our teachers would go a long way reverse our current unhappy educational status quo.
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