Barksdale: Make literacy your mission

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Corporate leader and philanthropist James Barksdale, a co-chair of the PBS-appointed Digital Future Initiative, previewed his thinking in a Current commentary seven months before the long-delayed publication of the initiative’s recommendations. See also comments by initiative Co-chair Reed Hundt.
James Barksdale

Barksdale speaks during a meeting of PBS’s Digital Future Initiative, which he co-chaired.

In a story that has always held meaning for me, Lewis Carroll’s character Alice came to a fork in the road. Which way do I go? she wondered. The Cheshire Cat beamed down from the tree above her and asked, “Little girl, are you lost?”

“Well, I just want to know which way I should go,” she said.

“Well, where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

And he said, “Then, any road will do.”

Truer words have never been spoken.

I’m here to talk a little bit today about what we have learned since December in the Digital Future Initiative and what we think we can provide to you and your users across the country.

I’ll give you a little quick background to establish some of my credentials. About 10 years ago in the Valley, when we were starting Netscape, the Internet phenomenon was exploding all around us. The Netscape Navigator browser made the Internet usable by mere mortals.

Friends of mine and I started a group called TechNet, the Technology Network, which now has more than 350 CEOs of American technology corporations, presenting our case to regulatory bodies on the needs of technology. One of its rules is that we set an advocacy agenda of at least three objectives a year. Every year since then, the No. 1 objective has been to improve public education in America. The reason is very simple. It’s not altruistic — it’s business.

This country suffers from a serious, serious problem. Many would call it a crisis. We are not educating our children to the level needed for the country to be competitive in the world market. Almost 50 million adult Americans over age 16 are functionally illiterate. They can’t read and understand a newspaper; they can’t make sense of a map. That is almost a quarter of our nation. It is not just a crisis; it’s a sin. How did we let this happen?

People sit around wondering why our jobs are going offshore. It’s pretty simple. Is what ways is America competitive anymore? There are some marvelously educated people in India, China and Japan. In the DFI’s very first meeting in December, we quickly decided that tackling the nation’s literacy and learning crisis is the single most important mission for public broadcasting. Before we ask for money, we need to make it very clear what we would do with it — build a case.

In its deliberations over the past four months, the DFI has focused on the connection between two growing problems.

One is this urgent need to face up to our country’s education crisis. America’s youth are falling further behind their international peers, especially in math and science. More than 30 percent of our children don’t complete high school. This leads to all sorts of social problems and sometimes criminal ones, as I’m sure you know. And as a former CEO, I can tell you that American business leaders are very concerned, as we all should be, about whether today’s kids will have the skills they need to compete in an increasingly global economy.

No other institution in this country has the public trust, the national reach, the community contacts and expertise in relating to children with media that public broadcasting has.

Although public broadcasting is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in combating the nation’s learning crisis, the system lacks the resources it needs to complete the digital content transformation and to play an expanding leadership role in educational media, digital rights management, production and distribution. That is the second problem the DFI focused on.

From the earliest age, millions of our young people are consigned to a future without opportunity because they never learn how to learn. The Barksdale Reading Institute has now worked with over 50,000 children in the poorest 100 schools in Mississippi. I can tell you, the poorest schools in Mississippi are poor. We have the lowest per-capita income of any state.

We bring in a very, very competent independent research group that evaluates every child’s reading capability with the objective of raising his or her skills to third-grade level by the end of the third grade — a key milestone in achieving reading proficiency.

After working in the schools four years, we have learned two things. One, the program works if implemented correctly. There are plenty of sexy, neat media experiences; the trick is how you implement it. The second thing we learned is the students must be reached before they get to kindergarten.

There is a great book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, by two University of Kansas researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley. They observed children and every interaction they had with adults from birth to the age of 36 months. By the end of that time, children of poor families have one-quarter the working vocabulary of children of affluent families. In fact, the children of affluent families at 36 months have a larger working vocabulary than the parents of the poor children.

Another difference is that most of the children’s interactions with adults are positive in the affluent families. In the families in lower socioeconomic groups, most of the interactions are negative. That doesn’t mean the mother loves the child less; it means they are more afraid for their future — don’t touch that, don’t do that, put that down.

Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige observed last year that while technology has transformed every other industry, our schools remain unchanged for the most part — despite increased investments in computers.

Actually, our children are heavy consumers of information technology — just not at school. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that young Americans under age 18 consume an average of 6.5 hours of media per day, 45 hours per week, much of it inappropriate.

Children now spend far more time plugged into entertainment media than they spend in school or reading. This reality suggests that while media are a big part of the problem, media are also essential to the solution. Future generations increasingly will learn through new digital media — your forte — in and out of the classroom, in more hands-on and interactive ways than today.

America’s classrooms and homes could better boost academic achievement if they had ready access to high-quality multimedia resources designed to engage students and teachers in information age learning. Without a doubt, the public broadcasting system, with its national network and local presence in every community, is the institution best equipped to be a resource and delivery platform for new multimedia education, content and learning tools.

We believe it should be the core mission of public broadcasting to partner with schools, with industry and others to develop e-learning applications and content that are universally accessible, affordable — that is very important — and aligned with curriculum standards.

One reason I got so excited about seeing what Mississippi Public Broadcasting and WGBH were doing with Between the Lions was that it’s affordable. DVDs of the series can be used to teach specific concepts in all of the childcare centers.

The DFI would call on PBS, in particular, to play a leadership role in convening the public and private organizations that care deeply about nurturing an educated society and leaving no child out of it. There needs to be a powerful, coordinated set of new national initiatives that provide the new multimedia content and teaching tools needed by students, parents, teachers and pre-K caregivers.

In our report next month, the DFI will outline several initiatives. The first is the Literacy 360 Ready-to-Learn Initiative, which will have the essential educational goal of making all children ready to read by kindergarten. The most effective means, we believe, is to provide teachers, parents and the nation’s 2 million pre-K caregivers with the training and tools they need.

It would provide personalized multimedia literacy learning packages, like those we’re developing with Between the Lions in Mississippi, delivered on demand and through active outreach programs that have been tested and proved effective. It’s very important that the methods be tested and research-based.

Second, a lifelong learning initiative should be anchored by an on-demand multimedia treasury of digitized learning content and e-learning tools that are easily accessible and tied to state curriculum standards. While PBS can play a leading role in aggregating this content for education, this new gateway to digital learning and resources should be the product of partnerships between stations, museums, libraries, industry and other contributors through an open-digital media network.

We believe a third related learning initiative should focus on developing new interactive and multiplayer instructional gaming, online tutoring and virtual simulations. Studies show that interactive hands-on learning enhances student motivation and achievement. We have a similar technology project in our reading institute, but far more is being spent — billions annually — by the motion picture industry and others to develop videogames for youth. The problem is that these interactive video technologies are not being harnessed for education.

We believe public broadcasting — in partnership with industry, academia, the Defense Department and others — can leverage interactive tools like these to provide far more for education than a programming archive. These new e-learning services reflect the best thinking of public broadcasters and education experts that the DFI has consulted.

Our report, however, will mark only the beginning, not the conclusion, of an ongoing national dialogue about the role of public service media in improving literacy and learning. Although the DFI expects PBS to continue its leadership role, we need feedback and participation by every local station and content producer to refine this vision.

The DFI also will issue a call for new partners from both the public and the private sectors to join with public broadcasting. I hope that this month each of you will contribute your best ideas on the digital future for multimedia learning services. During the next stage we will be coming to you as well as the museums, libraries and others in your area.

During the next stage it will be essential for all of you to participate in building a coalition in your local communities to insist that public broadcasting receive the resources it needs to turn this e-learning vision into reality. America’s children deserve no less.

So when the Cheshire Cat asked Alice where she was going, if she had answered,“I’m going to a better place,” then perhaps the wise old cat would have said, “Then, little child, take the road to the marvelous public digital media for a lifetime of learning.”

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