Innovation green light

Posted on March 10, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Trump administration’s education department will be quick to reward outside-the-box thinking. But it’s far from obvious to entrenched bureaucrats or legislators.

If Betsy DeVos is anything, she’s as anti-establishment as her boss (that’s why everyone in the education establishment opposed her). And yet, just like him, here she is.

And here we are:

In a prime position to seize an immense opportunity, if—admittedly an enormous “if”—our own state government leaders are adventuresome enough to live up to our old state nickname.

It’s been 13 years since the infamous Act 60 was pushed through our Legislature. It passed despite broad warning signs and red flags at the time from a state mirroring us in many ways (West Virginia), which was taking measure of its own consolidation failings 10 years after the fact.

In those ensuing years a lot has changed—politically, technologically, educationally.

Electorally we were among deep red states. Broadband penetration and all that it enables is reaching the most rural of areas. And nobody really disputes all the broken promises (lower costs, better test scores, etc.) of consolidation.

We took the “opportunity” motto off our license plates a long time ago, but it’s still spelled the same way.

If Education Secretary DeVos’ head could ever be turned by a powerful prospective pet project, it would be a well-planned blueprint for a statewide Rural Public School System. Not a patchwork approach that seeks to semi-urbanize schools out in the hinterlands. One that is specifically designed to maximize the unique characteristics of rural lifestyles with newly accessible modern learning technology.

Our population has been crying out for such a solution for decades. We’re nowhere near the most rural state, but still a decidedly rural one. Only 17 of our 75 counties are considered urban. Our economy is powered by agriculture.

But as recently as 2010, our state board of education bungled the chance to pioneer a distance-learning consolidation concept between Delight and Weiner. Both schools had high test scores, great graduation rates and tremendous community support, but also an enrollment figure below Act 60’s magically irrelevant number.

So naturally both had to be shut down.

Fortunately, many of the masterminds behind Act 60 have moved on from public service. The question is, has the failed mindset moved on as well?

Closed minds brought us nothing but closed schools, and barely moved any needles on student performance metrics. Open minds can launch us into the national limelight if we simply insist on innovative thinking for rural education from a totally rural perspective.

Samsung Electronics is repurposing 40-foot shipping containers into mobile classrooms for sub-Saharan countries to improve their education. Each serves up to 21 students, and is equipped with a 50-inch electronic board, Internet-enabled solar-powered notebooks, multifunction printers, Samsung Galaxy tablet computers and Wi-Fi cameras. A solar-panel roof generates nine hours of electricity a day, since many African communities have minimal power available, if any.

But our solution for remote rural communities continues to be rooted in 1960s-era busing of outlying students to expensive brick-and-mortar structures in larger population concentrations?

The enemy of innovation isn’t really backward thinking (which at least incorporates thought), it’s inertia. The need for better education ideas in rural communities isn’t new, but developments in broadband, smartphones and tablets, applications and programs, distance-learning, video-streaming and other connectivity and telecommunications products and services are.

Rural 12-year-olds today know more about technology than college grad students did a couple of generations ago.

In the not-too-distant past, the average kid in rural Arkansas had zero access to East or West Coast fashions, fads, shopping, trends, songs, menus or entertainment. All those divides, and more, have evaporated in the cyberspace revolution. The Coach bag that was once purchased exclusively on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive can now arrive in Nowhere, USA, in two days from Amazon.

Likewise with access to the latest schooling techniques, concepts, teachers, technology partnerships and information content. The finest lectures and speakers on anything are available on YouTube.

The reason to not use a television series like Legends and Lies: Patriots to help teach students about American independence isn’t because “we’ve never done it like that.” It’s because those kinds of tools and technology never existed before.

And now that they are now proliferating, we must push our thinking to expand even faster.

We have some wonderful organizations across the state already in place—the Rural Community Alliance comes to my mind first, but there are also others—to serve as effective, enabling collaborators on a rural initiative needed not only here in Arkansas, but in other states from Montana to Maine.

Task forces too often produce neither task nor force, but maybe that’s a start, providing it comprises fresh, non-establishment minds. Even the best-intentioned capital-city thinking is simply incapable of grass-roots inventiveness on rural education.

Four out of 10 Arkansans live rural lives. As suddenly and surprisingly as last Nov. 8, those rural communities represent possibly the best laboratories for profound shifts in teaching.

Rural education is a national challenge. It’s carpe diem time, and Arkansas ought to be a natural.

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