For the last year we have focused on getting the children back to school. But even before the pandemic, American students’ grades in reading, science, and math had flattened to depressingly low levels.
So, if our educational system fails to get the vast majority of our children even basic knowledge, why are we rushing back to what we were doing before? Isn’t the better question, how can we move forward and do better?
Dr. Benjamin Heuston employed throughout his career. He is the Executive Director of the Waterford Institute, a Utah-based not for profit that conducts early childhood research and develops interactive educational software for children in the pre-K-6 area. He says that instead of looking at distance learning as a stopgap problematic solution and getting rid of it as soon as possible, we need to find smart ways to use technology as a solution.
Hear the full conversation here:
This conversation has been compressed and edited.
Matt Robison: For you, does this story begin with a glimpse from your father?
Benj Heuston: Yes. He was the head of an elite private girls’ school in New York City. He turned it into a very impressive prep school for getting kids into the Ivy League. But he could see Harlem from his window. And he began to wonder if what he was doing was actually only deepening the inequalities in our educational system. He began to wonder how things could be made fair, not just in education.
Matt Robison: How can technology do that?
Benj Heuston: We still use the same basic model that we’ve been using for thousands of years. We try to maximize a single teacher to 20 or 30 students. Studies show that teachers per child are in direct contact with each student for one to two minutes a day. This type of direct and targeted tutoring – the most effective method of teaching children – is only available to our children three to six hours a year. Our education system is a mature delivery system. It can’t get much better even if you keep putting money into it [because it is still the same basic model]. Technology is changing these natural limitations.
Matt Robison: We threw a lot of money and reforms into the system. Will we succeed in raising children according to this standard model?
Benj Heuston: Absolutely not. The problem is that we haven’t given schools and teachers the tools of the 21st century to deal with the problems of the 21st century. The demands on society and work have increased. Our approach hasn’t changed much.
Matt Robison: But I can only hear the audience say to themselves, “Wait a minute, we just finished distance learning and it was horrible.” So what’s the difference between a well-designed program that uses technology and what we’ve just seen?
Benj Heuston: No question about it, the last year and a half has clearly been a fire drill where we tried to use some technology to solve the problem and it didn’t work. That’s not surprising. Technology shouldn’t be used to replace what works. This is not intended to replace teachers. We need to use technology as a tool to unburden our teachers who are already overworked and underpaid.
Matt Robison: What did you see regarding the results of a well-designed online learning platform for young children?
Benj Heuston: In 2013 we visited the homes of a thousand families in Utah’s 18 most rural school districts. I had a district in Utah the size of Rhode Island that had 14 four-year-olds. I have another one that’s bigger than the state of Massachusetts and it’s home to 226 four-year-olds in over 8,000 square miles. Now, the most important thing in a child’s experience of education in a classroom is the teacher. But you just can’t get all these country kids into the classroom. So you have to go to them. Sometimes we brought computers, internet, even satellite internet. Sometimes we set up solar power to provide electricity to children in Indian reservations.
And we found that the children got to school ready to read. We advanced them by about a third to a half year of learning using the program for just 15 minutes a day. It was like having an interactive tutor at home.
Matt Robison: What about urban environments? Or in districts with a majority of racial and ethnic minorities?
Benj Heuston: When the pandemic broke out, within a few weeks we launched a program for over 13,000 families in nine different states, supplying them with computers and providing them with the Internet. We did coaching and training for the parents. We did it in multiple languages and we did it on the Navajo Nation reservation.
You see, we’re not the only ones in the world who know how to use technology to help children. There are many other great programs out there. But I can only speak to our data. Our data shows that children who come out of our program, on average, read as if they were already in the middle or at the end of kindergarten in terms of their abilities. And that’s for these disadvantaged populations.
Matt Robison: What would success look like in your head?
Benj Heuston: Getting the same from everyone to give children exactly what they need. Tests show that educational progress has been essentially unchanged for 40 years. Our system only works for a third of our children. Success means that we can make it work for the other two-thirds as well.
We share edited excerpts from the Great Ideas podcast every week that explain how guidelines work and present innovative solutions to problems. Please subscribe, and to learn more about the use of technology in education, watch the full episode on Apple, Spotify, Google, anchor, Breaker, pocket, RadioPublic, or stapler
Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on demographics, psychology, politics, and economics trends that shape American politics. He spent a decade on Capitol Hill as the legislative director and chief of staff to three members of Congress and also served as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or advisor on several New Hampshire congressional elections. In 2012, he ran a race from behind that national political analysts named the biggest surprise win of the election. He then served as Policy Director in the New Hampshire State Senate and successfully helped coordinate legislative efforts to pass the Medicaid extension. He has also done extensive work in the private sector on energy regulation policy. Matt holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with his wife and three children.