By guest blogger Morgan Miller
Education and philanthropic leaders joined U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a summit this week titled "Reimagining Education: Empowering Learners in a Connected World"—an event that focused on not just on establishing technology's place in the curriculum, but protecting the status of other subjects, too.
The event, held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., was co-hosted by the Department of Education and the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It drew an eclectic group of speakers and attendees, including professional basketball star Chris Paul and television journalist Andrea Mitchell.
James Shelton, the acting deputy secretary at the department, called on attendees to focus on a number of questions, including the challenge of using technology to prepare students for the evolving demands of the workforce, and finding ways to raise students' overall enthusiasm for school.
Duncan said that K-12 technology could play a major role in improving students' academic achievement, and giving them the skills necessary to compete for jobs with future workers from other countries.
At the same time, many students lack access to the kind of high-quality tech tools they need to take up that fight, the secretary said, during a question-and-answer session with Mitchell.
"The digital divide is real," Duncan said. But he also saw a major gap in the access that students from wealthy and poor districts receive to high-quality, innovative curriculum. School need to figure out ways to blend lessons on science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called "STEM" fields"—with other subjects, such as foreign language and the arts, so students can have a "well-rounded, world-class" education, he argued.
"That's the norm in wealthier communities, that's the norm in wealthier private schools," Duncan said. "That has to be the norm in Anacostia and the South side of Chicago."
Duncan noted that his children have benefited from cross-curricular lessons. They attend a K-5 school in Virginia with a science focus. The music teacher has students singing songs about nutrition, food, and science, offering different way for students to learn.
There are many critics of online education who fear that people are relying more on technology to teach students than actual teachers. But the secretary said those fears were overstated.
"Technology will never replace teachers," Duncan said. His goal with implementing learning is that great teachers will empower technology. "When you put those two things together, I think really special things can happen."
A panel of K-12 and college students also called for a balanced curriculum, one that gave sufficient attention to the arts. One of the panelists, Marcus Prince, a music education major and trumpet minor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., bemoaned school districts' tendency to cut arts programs before other parts of their budgets. Schools need to fight to protect music studies, said Prince. Mitchell then joked that schools need to keep the arts in order to protect his future job prospects.
Prince said he counted himself lucky that he had a support system that encouraged him to stick to an academic path, and pursue college scholarships and other opportunities. Many of his former high school classmates didn't get that support, he said.
"Graduations are better to attend then funerals," he said.