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New & Noteworthy: December 2021

This month, we’re reading a book by journalist Gregg Toppe and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future Jim Tracey about how American high schools are being transformed by technology; a Washington Post article musing about the promise of AI writing apps; a New York Times op-ed explaining how social safety net programs help lift families out of intergenerational poverty; a report from Chiefs for Change and the Data Quality Campaign with strategies for updating statewide longitudinal data systems to give K-12 educators better information about students’ postsecondary and career paths; and a Brookings analysis of child care staffing and compensation.

In Running with Robots journalist Gregg Toppo and Jobs for the Future senior advisor Jim Tracey explore how technological advances that are already changing the world of work are likely to impact the American high school. The authors present the current state of high school education and consider how it will need to change to keep pace with rapid developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics. The book includes examples of schools that have begun preparing for this new world while also interspersing throughout a story of an imagined high school principal who, in a “Rip Van Winkle” scenario, sleeps for 20 years and awakens in 2040. When he returns to his school he finds that things have changed dramatically and that teachers have found creative ways of using the latest technology tools to bring lessons in a wide range of subjects to life. The book paints a picture of how technology can be used in creative ways to spark greater learning, help connect school to life beyond the schoolhouse doors, and prepare students for an AI-driven world.

Even creative writing and journalism may be affected by automation. That’s one conclusion that can be drawn from a new piece In The Washington Post, where Stephen Zeitchik explores new advances in written language generation software. GPT-3, a language supercomputer, works by processing sentences and then automatically generating follow up text on the same topic and style. Zeitnick intersperses machine-generated text with the prose of established authors and journalists. They are virtually indistinguishable from each other, showing how far the machines have come. The findings suggest that focusing on creative arts, writing, and critical thinking, while important, may not be enough to help all students compete with smart machines in the future.

From The New York Times, A Way to Break the Cycle of Poverty explains the role of social safety net programs in helping families escape intergenerational poverty. The op-ed was written by David Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and founding director of the Harvard Center for Law and Education. Citing numerous research examples, Kirp explains that social programs such as high-quality preschool and Medicaid provide not only lifelong benefits, including “greater academic success, higher earnings and better health” for the individuals in them, but also for their children. This, says Kirp, holds promise of “accelerating social mobility across generations.” 

Chiefs for Change and the Data Quality Campaign call for giving K-12 leaders access to better data about student postsecondary and career pathways in their December report, It’s Time to Make Linked Data Work for K-12 Leaders. Better understanding students’ trajectories after high school can help states track progress towards goals, allocate resources strategically, develop relevant CTE programs, identify opportunity gaps, and scale best practices. This would require better linking student-level data in K-12 and workforce systems. The report recommends four strategies for states to improve their longitudinal data systems: creating a cross-agency data governing body; updating statewide linked data infrastructure and source systems; making user-oriented, easily accessible data tools; and increasing external capacity to support data analysis and use.

Brookings’ latest piece on early childhood education and care argues that staffing and compensation are at the heart of building a better system. The authors explain that longstanding issues of low pay and high turnover of child care staff have been magnified by the pandemic and have left the system facing widespread staffing shortages. Brookings has partnered with the Louisiana Department of Education to better understand the situation and examine the effectiveness of its efforts to stabilize the workforce by earmarking $27 million in federal COVID relief funds to create Teacher Support Grants (TSG). These grants will give stipends, bonuses or wage supplements to early educators with a goal of reducing turnover. Brookings reports on its initial survey of almost 700 child care centers in Louisiana which documents the extent of shortages, the role of wages in causing them, and their impact on the quality of care. The authors suggest a living wage and salary ladder will be necessary to stabilize this workforce and provide quality care, in the long run.