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The Open Mind: 'A Technological Fix' for Education

Transcript of interview with Arthur Levine on PBS's "The Open Mind."

THE OPEN MIND

Guest: Arthur Levine

Title: "A 'Technological Fix' for Education"

VTR: 7/9/96

I'm Richard Heffner, your host on "The Open Mind." In his State of the Union Address late in January 1996, the President of the United States proposed to bring every American classroom and library into the computer age, meaning that every American schoolchild and library user, rich or poor, privileged or otherwise, would, by the year 2000, be connected, as Bill Clinton promised, "to the information superhighway" with computers, good software, and well-trained teachers. My guest today, Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's prestigious Teachers College, was among those education experts who hailed Bill Clinton's proposal, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that such a move is critical, but, interestingly enough, he added, "I would not have said that a few years ago," explaining that now what's happening in this country is that the wealthiest school districts are getting the technology, and the poorest are not, and they are falling further and further behind. "Technology like this," said President Levine, "can open an incredible array of opportunities to these kids." And, as The New York Times story paraphrased my guest, "With computer technology, the schools with the poorest library and resources can have access now to the same educational resources as the richest. Without it, the gaps between rich and poor are certain to grow." All of which interests me enormously, because I have read Mr. Levine's Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College and I can't help but wonder how much good any such technological fix can do in the face of such statistics as his book cites: that "American students from families in the bottom income bracket are eight times less likely to graduate from college than those in the rest of the population. The gap in college attendance between rich and poor is actually growing."

And so I would ask Mr. Levine today what role technology is really likely to play in beating the odds. What's going to happen?

Levine: Technology is not going to be the answer for beating the odds. What happens now is that we stand to put kids who are disadvantaged even further behind by lack of technology. Technology is not the way that we are going to take kids who are poor and turn them into middle-class kids. But prepare them to enter a work world without those kinds of skills is going to handicap them even further. So it's not the way out. But what it is is a vital skill they need to be productive in American society today.

Heffner: Now, does this mean you're enthusiastic about the president's promise? Are you hopeful? Do you think it can take place?

Levine: No, I don't think it's going to happen immediately. I don't think we're going to see it in the life of this administration. We live in a cash-poor time. And I think the sentiment's exactly where we need to go. I can't imagine the states having the kinds of resources it's going to take to make this real. I can't imagine the federal government, in a time in which we're slashing most human-resource budgets providing money for this kind of activity. But I think it's a signal in the right direction. I think it's symbolic. I think we're going to see model programs. I suspect that's the way we'll go.

Heffner: What about in terms of the history of American education? What about the previous role that technological fixes have played: film, television and the like?

Levine: Yes. I mean, that's a real good comparison, I think. When computers first came out, we imagined that classrooms were going to be transformed. It never happened. I think what's really gone on is that the computer has become more than a gadget this time. I think we're in the midst of a third technological revolution in this country. Let me take that back. I think we're in the middle of the second technological revolution in this country. We've seen what was an Industrial Revolution. Now I think we're seeing a computer and electronic revolution. And to that extent the kinds of changes we're talking about have the capacity to revolutionize what goes on in the classroom. They have the capacity to change what schools look like. So they're not going to be incorporated as another teaching aid this time, as was the hope in the `50s, or `60s, or even the `70s. What they're going to be now is changing fundamentally the nature of education and the kinds of resources available to kids.

Heffner: It's interesting...you talk about "just another teaching aid." Wasn't it the responsibility of the educational establishment that film in the past and television in the past, which were also looked upon as panaceas, became only aids, and that the teaching establishment did not want, out of fear, did not want these instruments to play too large a role? Is that unfair?

Levine: I think it may be. I'm trying to imagine a whole school based on film. One of the things we know about kids and the way they learn is that interaction is real important. And film doesn't offer that as well. At least not film that we had in the `40s, `50s or `60s, when it was talked about as becoming a panacea.

Heffner: Yes, but in the years that followed, certainly with television and videotape, a number of developments permitted the teaching group to make use of snippets, large portions, whatever, to bring it into the classroom in a more helpful fashion. Yet you didn't do it.

Levine: No, I think we did do that. I mean, if one goes into a typical school...

Heffner: Yeah.

Levine: ...Indeed, you see films being shown, and saw them well before. It's hard to replace the existing classroom with an array of films. They don't have the capacity. They're at best a replacement for the textbook, for the blackboard, for the visitor to the classroom. They're not the whole ballgame, which technology offers both the prospect and the danger of becoming.

Heffner: But then what will the computer do? Will it be an aid? You don't want it to be just an aid?

Levine: I don't think so. It's easier right now to see the impact the computer is going to have on higher education than it is to see the impact it's going to have on schools.

Heffner: How?

Levine: What's likely to happen in the next few... Let's... Middle of next century, my guess would be that much of higher education as we know it has disappeared and been replaced by technological universities. And let me see if I can explain what I mean and why I mean it. Right now the typical college student, the 18- to 22-year-old, who attends full-time and lives on campus, makes up 17 percent of all college students. That student's all but gone. Instead, we're seeing our working adults, and we're seeing older students who show up, take a course, two courses, maybe three courses. They don't work on the campus, they don't live on the campus, their friendships aren't on the campus, their lives aren't on the campus. And for them, what they're looking for is convenience. They're looking for ways to get this education and get it more easily than they had in the past. And what we now have is, we're coming very close to a time in which we can offer them instruction in their homes, in their office buildings, and they won't need to come to that campus at all. And, given the nature of that population, and given the kinds of advances we can make, it seems very, very natural for the physical plant that was higher education to become far less important and a lot of it to disappear in the next few years.

Heffner: What are the implications of that for the people you deal with: teachers-in-training?

Levine: Oh...We deal not only with teachers-in-training. We end up having administrators-in-training. We end up having policymakers-in-training and academics-in-training. An interesting example would be: we just started a program for the urban superintendents around the United States. When that program ends, we're going to hook all those superintendents up electronically so we can continue the kind of instruction that's gone on. It's much easier for those people to give us an afternoon a week four times a year...than to get on an airplane and fly to New York for a two-day seminar. I think increasingly we're going to see more and more of that begin to happen. More and more education that occurs over or using technological means than using the actual physical plant. People are going to look at the way we used to educate people and say it's reminiscent of people traveling on stagecoaches. We just don't do that anymore.

Heffner: But you think of that as higher education...

Levine: Yes.

Heffner: ...That the impact will come at that level?

Levine: First. We had...A virtual university was created in the western states. Ten western states got together within the last two weeks or month and said that what they were going to do was create a university which was going to be entirely technologically based. It's the first step. The difficulty with that in K-12 kinds of things or in schools is that interaction with real people, with adults, is real important. And whereas I can imagine in a time in which we have people who are spending minimal amounts of time at university replaced with technology, I still can't see the kind of technology that'll replace the classroom. I just don't see it as being possible right now. But I see it as being a main facet of what goes on in that classroom.

Heffner: What do you mean, "a main facet for what goes on?"

Levine: Well, I had an interesting experience. I went to visit a project that one of our faculty members is working on in a school in Harlem. And I walked in, and there was a student who was working on a project on John Paul Jones. And he was working on the project with another classmate, except that other classmate was in Ohio. And they were on a computer together. And not only that, but they could see each other and talk in real time. They were using resources from a library which they'd acquired over the Internet. And, in fact, what had happened was they were learning together. We brought together kids with a common interest who could work together, who could motivate each other, and they were getting their information not from the school library, which probably had a book on John Paul Jones, if anything, but from this vast array of stuff that was now available through the Internet. That was incredibly exciting. In a lot of ways it speaks to only the beginning of what we're going to see.

Heffner: But how exceptional is that? How exceptional must that be in terms of the larger picture of educating as many millions and millions and millions of children as we do?

Levine: It's too exceptional. At the moment, some of the better prep schools, independent schools, are able to afford those kinds of programs. Places like Fieldston and Dalton have become famous for their technology. But the reality is that most schools can't afford it. And the poorer a school is, the less likely it is able to afford it. And the end result is that it's not going to be the answer for millions and millions of kids. What's going to happen is the kids who go to schools like Dalton and Fieldston are going to get a step ahead, and the kids who go to public schools are going to find themselves even further behind.

Heffner: It's funny. When CTW, the Children's Television Workshop, began "Sesame Street," the charge was made that instead of narrowing the gap between those who were blessed with intellectual wealth and those who were cursed with having very little, that Sesame Street, in a sense, widened the gap; the rich got richer, the intellectually rich or the educationally rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Now, do you think that that's what's going to happen? I mean, your discussion of Fieldston and Dalton seems to indicate that you think that that's what will happen with the Computer Age.

Levine: No, I think it's what's going to happen in the short run. The interesting phenomenon with Sesame Street was, I remember seeing a poll of kids, and in the 1980s more could identify Lucille Ball than Big Bird. [Laughter] So that it's not only having it on TV; it's having the ability to watch it. It's having parents think this is a worthwhile activity for the kids to pursue. And that makes it a lot harder. It means it's not enough to have whatever we have. An important part of it is teaching teachers how to use it, teaching parents how to use it. The notion of whether this is going to create a gap, at least a short run gap... eventually what's going to happen is that the price is going to come down. Just as we saw only the affluent have television originally, only the affluent have telephones originally, I think we're going to see the same thing with computers. We're going to see, in the short run, wealthy people and middle-class people be far more likely to buy this stuff. But as the prices come down it becomes a much more central part of living. I think poor people are going to get it as well, but it's going to take too long.

Heffner: But, you know, when I read Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College I didn't read about devices; I read about human beings, about the impact upon a person, of mentors. How do you factor that into this whole question of educational technology? What you wrote about here are human beings acting upon human beings.

Levine: I've never, ever thought that technology was the answer to poverty. I've never thought it was a way to get a kid out of poverty. The difficulty I see now is that it's going to leave kids in poverty further behind if they don't know technology. It's a human being that makes the difference. Kids move, kids succeed. The poverty-breaker isn't new technology; the poverty-breaker is people who care about kids.

Heffner: And what do we do about that?

Levine: In terms of technologies? In terms of...

Heffner: Breaking the bonds.

Levine: One of the surprises was I ended up doing this study of kids almost by accident. I had spent a lot of time with... I had moved into a housing project. I spent some time talking to moms, I spent some time talking with kids. I had asked the kids, "If you could go as far as you want in school, how far would you go?" The most common answer was, "Tenth grade," followed distantly by "Twelfth." I asked them, "Do you know anybody who has ever completed college? Who's ever gone to college?" The answer was, "No." I asked them, "Do you know anybody who's ever finished high school?" And they had friends of relatives, or relatives of friends, but nobody in their immediate lives. I talked to their moms, and I said, "Tell me about college." I guess first I asked them, "What do you want for your kids?" And they said, "Well, I want my kid to be successful. I want my kid to be happy. I don't want my kid to get into trouble." They want the same thing any other parent does. And I'd say, "Tell me about college." And the answer was glazed eyes, wide expressions. They're not college people. I asked them the same question as, "Do you expect your kid to go to Mars?" The surprise in the study that we did was finding anybody to be a mentor. Anybody. The person who really stood out for me was one who had had a fourth-grade education, spoke no English, had a child out of wedlock, worked in a hospital as an orderly, saw the doctors, concluded the doctors weren't smarter than she was, they were just better educated, and said, "My daughter is going to have what they have." Her daughter ended up being an undergraduate at Harvard and is now doing her medical work at Yale. Anybody can be a mentor. We have the capacity to turn anybody in the United States into a mentor. They only need four characteristics in common. What we found was that there were people who really believed that hard work paid off, they really believed they could make a difference through education, they felt that they could make a difference in kids' lives personally, and finally, they were bicultural. They understood poverty, and they understood middle-class life, and they understood what it took to get from one to the other. What we need to do is train a nation of mentors.

Heffner: And? How do you go about that?

Levine: Well, there are lots of ways to do that. One of the things that colleges and universities are forever talking about is making a difference in schools. And we watch lots of colleges and universities now step into a school, adopt a school, participate in a school. One of the most useful things they could do is begin offering classes for parents, issues of mentoring, issues on schooling, teaching the kinds of very basic skills that are necessary for a kid to make it. Those classes are possible. In colleges they're possible. In industry they're possible. Community organizations. It doesn't take a lot to convince a parent they can make a difference in their kids' lives, and that's really where the effort needs to go. I think it would be far better to do this on a local basis than it would be to start a federal program. I think it would be more worthwhile to try this in our cities and our communities than it would be to try this in Washington DC.

Heffner: All right. Then let me ask you this question: If you can identify what should be done -- and you have -- is it being done? Literally? Literally. Not pie-in-the-sky.

Levine: Yeah, it is. There are programs right in this city in which it's being done. There's a program called "I Had a Dream," and that was started by Eugene Lang...

Heffner: Right.

Levine: ...Which takes the basic principles of mentorship. And it's small now. But what it does is it targets kids individually. It promises them at a very early age to get a college education. It offers kids support services they need. It involves their parents. And right now there are about 10,000 kids in the United States who are part of this program. The problem with it is that it's very small; it's not that the principles don't work. And it's also independently funded. It takes a wealthy person who wants to set up such a project in his or her community to make it happen. But, yeah, there are examples of this all over America.

Heffner: All right, now, Teachers College, teachers, educational administrators. Do you have a sense... You say this program is to be found all over America. Do you have a sense of growth of this idea, of this notion, of this purposefulness at a level that is truly significant given the problems that we face?

Levine: Absolutely not. The reality is that the conditions of poor people are getting worse in this country. More people are getting poor. And the path out of poverty for kids is becoming more and more elusive.

Heffner: What do we do then? Close the book?

Levine: I sure hope not.

Heffner: What do we do then? What do you do?

Levine: Well, let me talk about what we do. I said I didn't think this was a time for programs in Washington. I'm not against programs in Washington; I'd much rather see state programs created. The target for these kinds of programs are local. I'd like to see model programs established in different communities. It would be very cheap to do. Foundations could begin to do it. What we've done is slipshod kinds of efforts. We haven't focused on whole communities. We focused on a particular school with programs like "I Had a Dream." I'd like to see us focus on neighborhoods. I'd like to see real model programs being tried. We have the research now; we've just never tried it. And what I'd ask is that we try five to ten different communities in which we'd take on the notion of mentorship in an organized fashion and build real programs. And what I'm talking about here is either foundations or government. It matters not where the money comes from. Being willing to put in money for a period of five to ten years, evaluate the results, and publicize the consequences. I think we have a real model for making that happen. How do we do it at Teachers College? We've made a commitment to the notion of mentorship. But this has nothing to do with my research or my book. In essence, what happens with a place like Teachers College is, since the college began, we began with this radical notion that we were doing a terrible job with the immigrant kids before the turn of the century. And looked at what you do to help immigrant kids. And what Teachers College concluded was, or the founders concluded, was the problem was that teachers didn't know how to educate them. Let's create a new breed of teacher. And they created the college for that purpose. We could call them teachers. We could also call them mentors. Our job at Teachers College is to train mentors who'll help kids, prepare mentors one person at a time. And those mentors fill positions as teachers, they fill positions as parents, they fill positions as administrators, they fill positions as policymakers. Go a step further: we're about to open up a new center on parenting which is going to focus very, very much on notions of mentoring and how we can help parents make a difference in kids' lives.

Heffner: Their own kids' lives?

Levine: Their own kids' lives. I also think mentoring is contagious. Having watched communities and having watched kids...One of the problems kids in poor communities have, and their parents have too, is there are no models of success. Poor communities have gotten poorer and poorer over time. One of the, maybe the only, one of the consequences of desegregation in the United States is that once desegregation unfairly forced professionals and entrepreneurs and poor people into one community because they were all of the same color. What happened in those days was that the poor kid could see the doctor down the street, could see the small-business operator. What's happened with desegregation, it was too long coming, is that it became fair and appropriate for people who were of different strata to move into different kinds of communities. They weren't forced to live in any place. The result was that poor communities emptied of anybody who had money, and the role models disappeared. The consequence is that for poor kids there were no examples of other people who were making it. For moms, they didn't know anybody who had made it. They're desperate for models of kids who are making it. If they can find out what works for other kids, moms would love to do those kinds of things for their own kids.

Heffner: How sanguine are you about...Let's say you describe the ideal approach, the model approach. How sanguine are you at this point? I suppose I should end the program (we have a minute or so left) on some upbeat note. Quite literally, what you do at Teachers College...what we do to train our teachers depends an awful lot upon what our real assumption, realistic assumption is going to be about the future. What's yours?

Levine: If you're in education it can't be anything but hopeful. I ended up entering this field a very long time ago for the reason that I was a product of the '60s, and I asked, "How do you change the world? How does one diminish injustice?" And the only answer I could come to was, "Education." It's the slowest but only effective way I know of changing the world. And so, we do our work at Teachers College. The conditions have changed, and the ways in which we do it have changed, but the fundamental commitment that drives the institution hasn't changed in a hundred years.

Heffner: And your anticipation about success?

Levine: I'm not a fool. The problem of poverty has been with us too long. Our job in part, my job in part, is America ought to be ashamed of the kinds of numbers that we have. America ought to be ashamed of the fact that we're losing ground. The fact of the matter is, not only is it shameful, but it's an economic accident, mistake, horrible occurrence for this country. The end result is that the best we can hope to do right now is educate the country about what it ought to be doing, motivate the country to move in that direction, and provide the models of successful practice for how to do it.

Heffner: Dr. Levine, that's a good point at which to end, and to thank you for providing that model. Thanks a lot for joining me today on "The Open Mind".

Levine: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Heffner: Thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you'll join us again next time. And if you'd like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, "Good night, and good luck."

Published Thursday, Jun. 27, 2002

The Open Mind: 'A Technological Fix' for Education

THE OPEN MIND

Guest: Arthur Levine

Title: "A 'Technological Fix' for Education"

VTR: 7/9/96

I'm Richard Heffner, your host on "The Open Mind." In his State of the Union Address late in January 1996, the President of the United States proposed to bring every American classroom and library into the computer age, meaning that every American schoolchild and library user, rich or poor, privileged or otherwise, would, by the year 2000, be connected, as Bill Clinton promised, "to the information superhighway" with computers, good software, and well-trained teachers. My guest today, Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's prestigious Teachers College, was among those education experts who hailed Bill Clinton's proposal, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that such a move is critical, but, interestingly enough, he added, "I would not have said that a few years ago," explaining that now what's happening in this country is that the wealthiest school districts are getting the technology, and the poorest are not, and they are falling further and further behind. "Technology like this," said President Levine, "can open an incredible array of opportunities to these kids." And, as The New York Times story paraphrased my guest, "With computer technology, the schools with the poorest library and resources can have access now to the same educational resources as the richest. Without it, the gaps between rich and poor are certain to grow." All of which interests me enormously, because I have read Mr. Levine's Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College and I can't help but wonder how much good any such technological fix can do in the face of such statistics as his book cites: that "American students from families in the bottom income bracket are eight times less likely to graduate from college than those in the rest of the population. The gap in college attendance between rich and poor is actually growing."

And so I would ask Mr. Levine today what role technology is really likely to play in beating the odds. What's going to happen?

Levine: Technology is not going to be the answer for beating the odds. What happens now is that we stand to put kids who are disadvantaged even further behind by lack of technology. Technology is not the way that we are going to take kids who are poor and turn them into middle-class kids. But prepare them to enter a work world without those kinds of skills is going to handicap them even further. So it's not the way out. But what it is is a vital skill they need to be productive in American society today.

Heffner: Now, does this mean you're enthusiastic about the president's promise? Are you hopeful? Do you think it can take place?

Levine: No, I don't think it's going to happen immediately. I don't think we're going to see it in the life of this administration. We live in a cash-poor time. And I think the sentiment's exactly where we need to go. I can't imagine the states having the kinds of resources it's going to take to make this real. I can't imagine the federal government, in a time in which we're slashing most human-resource budgets providing money for this kind of activity. But I think it's a signal in the right direction. I think it's symbolic. I think we're going to see model programs. I suspect that's the way we'll go.

Heffner: What about in terms of the history of American education? What about the previous role that technological fixes have played: film, television and the like?

Levine: Yes. I mean, that's a real good comparison, I think. When computers first came out, we imagined that classrooms were going to be transformed. It never happened. I think what's really gone on is that the computer has become more than a gadget this time. I think we're in the midst of a third technological revolution in this country. Let me take that back. I think we're in the middle of the second technological revolution in this country. We've seen what was an Industrial Revolution. Now I think we're seeing a computer and electronic revolution. And to that extent the kinds of changes we're talking about have the capacity to revolutionize what goes on in the classroom. They have the capacity to change what schools look like. So they're not going to be incorporated as another teaching aid this time, as was the hope in the `50s, or `60s, or even the `70s. What they're going to be now is changing fundamentally the nature of education and the kinds of resources available to kids.

Heffner: It's interesting...you talk about "just another teaching aid." Wasn't it the responsibility of the educational establishment that film in the past and television in the past, which were also looked upon as panaceas, became only aids, and that the teaching establishment did not want, out of fear, did not want these instruments to play too large a role? Is that unfair?

Levine: I think it may be. I'm trying to imagine a whole school based on film. One of the things we know about kids and the way they learn is that interaction is real important. And film doesn't offer that as well. At least not film that we had in the `40s, `50s or `60s, when it was talked about as becoming a panacea.

Heffner: Yes, but in the years that followed, certainly with television and videotape, a number of developments permitted the teaching group to make use of snippets, large portions, whatever, to bring it into the classroom in a more helpful fashion. Yet you didn't do it.

Levine: No, I think we did do that. I mean, if one goes into a typical school...

Heffner: Yeah.

Levine: ...Indeed, you see films being shown, and saw them well before. It's hard to replace the existing classroom with an array of films. They don't have the capacity. They're at best a replacement for the textbook, for the blackboard, for the visitor to the classroom. They're not the whole ballgame, which technology offers both the prospect and the danger of becoming.

Heffner: But then what will the computer do? Will it be an aid? You don't want it to be just an aid?

Levine: I don't think so. It's easier right now to see the impact the computer is going to have on higher education than it is to see the impact it's going to have on schools.

Heffner: How?

Levine: What's likely to happen in the next few... Let's... Middle of next century, my guess would be that much of higher education as we know it has disappeared and been replaced by technological universities. And let me see if I can explain what I mean and why I mean it. Right now the typical college student, the 18- to 22-year-old, who attends full-time and lives on campus, makes up 17 percent of all college students. That student's all but gone. Instead, we're seeing our working adults, and we're seeing older students who show up, take a course, two courses, maybe three courses. They don't work on the campus, they don't live on the campus, their friendships aren't on the campus, their lives aren't on the campus. And for them, what they're looking for is convenience. They're looking for ways to get this education and get it more easily than they had in the past. And what we now have is, we're coming very close to a time in which we can offer them instruction in their homes, in their office buildings, and they won't need to come to that campus at all. And, given the nature of that population, and given the kinds of advances we can make, it seems very, very natural for the physical plant that was higher education to become far less important and a lot of it to disappear in the next few years.

Heffner: What are the implications of that for the people you deal with: teachers-in-training?

Levine: Oh...We deal not only with teachers-in-training. We end up having administrators-in-training. We end up having policymakers-in-training and academics-in-training. An interesting example would be: we just started a program for the urban superintendents around the United States. When that program ends, we're going to hook all those superintendents up electronically so we can continue the kind of instruction that's gone on. It's much easier for those people to give us an afternoon a week four times a year...than to get on an airplane and fly to New York for a two-day seminar. I think increasingly we're going to see more and more of that begin to happen. More and more education that occurs over or using technological means than using the actual physical plant. People are going to look at the way we used to educate people and say it's reminiscent of people traveling on stagecoaches. We just don't do that anymore.

Heffner: But you think of that as higher education...

Levine: Yes.

Heffner: ...That the impact will come at that level?

Levine: First. We had...A virtual university was created in the western states. Ten western states got together within the last two weeks or month and said that what they were going to do was create a university which was going to be entirely technologically based. It's the first step. The difficulty with that in K-12 kinds of things or in schools is that interaction with real people, with adults, is real important. And whereas I can imagine in a time in which we have people who are spending minimal amounts of time at university replaced with technology, I still can't see the kind of technology that'll replace the classroom. I just don't see it as being possible right now. But I see it as being a main facet of what goes on in that classroom.

Heffner: What do you mean, "a main facet for what goes on?"

Levine: Well, I had an interesting experience. I went to visit a project that one of our faculty members is working on in a school in Harlem. And I walked in, and there was a student who was working on a project on John Paul Jones. And he was working on the project with another classmate, except that other classmate was in Ohio. And they were on a computer together. And not only that, but they could see each other and talk in real time. They were using resources from a library which they'd acquired over the Internet. And, in fact, what had happened was they were learning together. We brought together kids with a common interest who could work together, who could motivate each other, and they were getting their information not from the school library, which probably had a book on John Paul Jones, if anything, but from this vast array of stuff that was now available through the Internet. That was incredibly exciting. In a lot of ways it speaks to only the beginning of what we're going to see.

Heffner: But how exceptional is that? How exceptional must that be in terms of the larger picture of educating as many millions and millions and millions of children as we do?

Levine: It's too exceptional. At the moment, some of the better prep schools, independent schools, are able to afford those kinds of programs. Places like Fieldston and Dalton have become famous for their technology. But the reality is that most schools can't afford it. And the poorer a school is, the less likely it is able to afford it. And the end result is that it's not going to be the answer for millions and millions of kids. What's going to happen is the kids who go to schools like Dalton and Fieldston are going to get a step ahead, and the kids who go to public schools are going to find themselves even further behind.

Heffner: It's funny. When CTW, the Children's Television Workshop, began "Sesame Street," the charge was made that instead of narrowing the gap between those who were blessed with intellectual wealth and those who were cursed with having very little, that Sesame Street, in a sense, widened the gap; the rich got richer, the intellectually rich or the educationally rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Now, do you think that that's what's going to happen? I mean, your discussion of Fieldston and Dalton seems to indicate that you think that that's what will happen with the Computer Age.

Levine: No, I think it's what's going to happen in the short run. The interesting phenomenon with Sesame Street was, I remember seeing a poll of kids, and in the 1980s more could identify Lucille Ball than Big Bird. [Laughter] So that it's not only having it on TV; it's having the ability to watch it. It's having parents think this is a worthwhile activity for the kids to pursue. And that makes it a lot harder. It means it's not enough to have whatever we have. An important part of it is teaching teachers how to use it, teaching parents how to use it. The notion of whether this is going to create a gap, at least a short run gap... eventually what's going to happen is that the price is going to come down. Just as we saw only the affluent have television originally, only the affluent have telephones originally, I think we're going to see the same thing with computers. We're going to see, in the short run, wealthy people and middle-class people be far more likely to buy this stuff. But as the prices come down it becomes a much more central part of living. I think poor people are going to get it as well, but it's going to take too long.

Heffner: But, you know, when I read Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College I didn't read about devices; I read about human beings, about the impact upon a person, of mentors. How do you factor that into this whole question of educational technology? What you wrote about here are human beings acting upon human beings.

Levine: I've never, ever thought that technology was the answer to poverty. I've never thought it was a way to get a kid out of poverty. The difficulty I see now is that it's going to leave kids in poverty further behind if they don't know technology. It's a human being that makes the difference. Kids move, kids succeed. The poverty-breaker isn't new technology; the poverty-breaker is people who care about kids.

Heffner: And what do we do about that?

Levine: In terms of technologies? In terms of...

Heffner: Breaking the bonds.

Levine: One of the surprises was I ended up doing this study of kids almost by accident. I had spent a lot of time with... I had moved into a housing project. I spent some time talking to moms, I spent some time talking with kids. I had asked the kids, "If you could go as far as you want in school, how far would you go?" The most common answer was, "Tenth grade," followed distantly by "Twelfth." I asked them, "Do you know anybody who has ever completed college? Who's ever gone to college?" The answer was, "No." I asked them, "Do you know anybody who's ever finished high school?" And they had friends of relatives, or relatives of friends, but nobody in their immediate lives. I talked to their moms, and I said, "Tell me about college." I guess first I asked them, "What do you want for your kids?" And they said, "Well, I want my kid to be successful. I want my kid to be happy. I don't want my kid to get into trouble." They want the same thing any other parent does. And I'd say, "Tell me about college." And the answer was glazed eyes, wide expressions. They're not college people. I asked them the same question as, "Do you expect your kid to go to Mars?" The surprise in the study that we did was finding anybody to be a mentor. Anybody. The person who really stood out for me was one who had had a fourth-grade education, spoke no English, had a child out of wedlock, worked in a hospital as an orderly, saw the doctors, concluded the doctors weren't smarter than she was, they were just better educated, and said, "My daughter is going to have what they have." Her daughter ended up being an undergraduate at Harvard and is now doing her medical work at Yale. Anybody can be a mentor. We have the capacity to turn anybody in the United States into a mentor. They only need four characteristics in common. What we found was that there were people who really believed that hard work paid off, they really believed they could make a difference through education, they felt that they could make a difference in kids' lives personally, and finally, they were bicultural. They understood poverty, and they understood middle-class life, and they understood what it took to get from one to the other. What we need to do is train a nation of mentors.

Heffner: And? How do you go about that?

Levine: Well, there are lots of ways to do that. One of the things that colleges and universities are forever talking about is making a difference in schools. And we watch lots of colleges and universities now step into a school, adopt a school, participate in a school. One of the most useful things they could do is begin offering classes for parents, issues of mentoring, issues on schooling, teaching the kinds of very basic skills that are necessary for a kid to make it. Those classes are possible. In colleges they're possible. In industry they're possible. Community organizations. It doesn't take a lot to convince a parent they can make a difference in their kids' lives, and that's really where the effort needs to go. I think it would be far better to do this on a local basis than it would be to start a federal program. I think it would be more worthwhile to try this in our cities and our communities than it would be to try this in Washington DC.

Heffner: All right. Then let me ask you this question: If you can identify what should be done -- and you have -- is it being done? Literally? Literally. Not pie-in-the-sky.

Levine: Yeah, it is. There are programs right in this city in which it's being done. There's a program called "I Had a Dream," and that was started by Eugene Lang...

Heffner: Right.

Levine: ...Which takes the basic principles of mentorship. And it's small now. But what it does is it targets kids individually. It promises them at a very early age to get a college education. It offers kids support services they need. It involves their parents. And right now there are about 10,000 kids in the United States who are part of this program. The problem with it is that it's very small; it's not that the principles don't work. And it's also independently funded. It takes a wealthy person who wants to set up such a project in his or her community to make it happen. But, yeah, there are examples of this all over America.

Heffner: All right, now, Teachers College, teachers, educational administrators. Do you have a sense... You say this program is to be found all over America. Do you have a sense of growth of this idea, of this notion, of this purposefulness at a level that is truly significant given the problems that we face?

Levine: Absolutely not. The reality is that the conditions of poor people are getting worse in this country. More people are getting poor. And the path out of poverty for kids is becoming more and more elusive.

Heffner: What do we do then? Close the book?

Levine: I sure hope not.

Heffner: What do we do then? What do you do?

Levine: Well, let me talk about what we do. I said I didn't think this was a time for programs in Washington. I'm not against programs in Washington; I'd much rather see state programs created. The target for these kinds of programs are local. I'd like to see model programs established in different communities. It would be very cheap to do. Foundations could begin to do it. What we've done is slipshod kinds of efforts. We haven't focused on whole communities. We focused on a particular school with programs like "I Had a Dream." I'd like to see us focus on neighborhoods. I'd like to see real model programs being tried. We have the research now; we've just never tried it. And what I'd ask is that we try five to ten different communities in which we'd take on the notion of mentorship in an organized fashion and build real programs. And what I'm talking about here is either foundations or government. It matters not where the money comes from. Being willing to put in money for a period of five to ten years, evaluate the results, and publicize the consequences. I think we have a real model for making that happen. How do we do it at Teachers College? We've made a commitment to the notion of mentorship. But this has nothing to do with my research or my book. In essence, what happens with a place like Teachers College is, since the college began, we began with this radical notion that we were doing a terrible job with the immigrant kids before the turn of the century. And looked at what you do to help immigrant kids. And what Teachers College concluded was, or the founders concluded, was the problem was that teachers didn't know how to educate them. Let's create a new breed of teacher. And they created the college for that purpose. We could call them teachers. We could also call them mentors. Our job at Teachers College is to train mentors who'll help kids, prepare mentors one person at a time. And those mentors fill positions as teachers, they fill positions as parents, they fill positions as administrators, they fill positions as policymakers. Go a step further: we're about to open up a new center on parenting which is going to focus very, very much on notions of mentoring and how we can help parents make a difference in kids' lives.

Heffner: Their own kids' lives?

Levine: Their own kids' lives. I also think mentoring is contagious. Having watched communities and having watched kids...One of the problems kids in poor communities have, and their parents have too, is there are no models of success. Poor communities have gotten poorer and poorer over time. One of the, maybe the only, one of the consequences of desegregation in the United States is that once desegregation unfairly forced professionals and entrepreneurs and poor people into one community because they were all of the same color. What happened in those days was that the poor kid could see the doctor down the street, could see the small-business operator. What's happened with desegregation, it was too long coming, is that it became fair and appropriate for people who were of different strata to move into different kinds of communities. They weren't forced to live in any place. The result was that poor communities emptied of anybody who had money, and the role models disappeared. The consequence is that for poor kids there were no examples of other people who were making it. For moms, they didn't know anybody who had made it. They're desperate for models of kids who are making it. If they can find out what works for other kids, moms would love to do those kinds of things for their own kids.

Heffner: How sanguine are you about...Let's say you describe the ideal approach, the model approach. How sanguine are you at this point? I suppose I should end the program (we have a minute or so left) on some upbeat note. Quite literally, what you do at Teachers College...what we do to train our teachers depends an awful lot upon what our real assumption, realistic assumption is going to be about the future. What's yours?

Levine: If you're in education it can't be anything but hopeful. I ended up entering this field a very long time ago for the reason that I was a product of the '60s, and I asked, "How do you change the world? How does one diminish injustice?" And the only answer I could come to was, "Education." It's the slowest but only effective way I know of changing the world. And so, we do our work at Teachers College. The conditions have changed, and the ways in which we do it have changed, but the fundamental commitment that drives the institution hasn't changed in a hundred years.

Heffner: And your anticipation about success?

Levine: I'm not a fool. The problem of poverty has been with us too long. Our job in part, my job in part, is America ought to be ashamed of the kinds of numbers that we have. America ought to be ashamed of the fact that we're losing ground. The fact of the matter is, not only is it shameful, but it's an economic accident, mistake, horrible occurrence for this country. The end result is that the best we can hope to do right now is educate the country about what it ought to be doing, motivate the country to move in that direction, and provide the models of successful practice for how to do it.

Heffner: Dr. Levine, that's a good point at which to end, and to thank you for providing that model. Thanks a lot for joining me today on "The Open Mind".

Levine: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Heffner: Thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you'll join us again next time. And if you'd like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, "Good night, and good luck."

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