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Explaining Bin Laden and Terrorism to Children; Gradeless Grade School; The New Three-Year Degree?; Educating America's Future Generation; A Science Renaissance

Aired May 7, 2011 - 09:30   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, HOST: You can't escape the images in TV, newspapers, magazines of bin Laden, the Twin Towers, the celebrations at the White House and Ground Zero. We, as adults, understand what we're seeing, maybe our kids don't.

With many children being simply too young to remember September 11 or know who bin Laden is, how do you and should you talk about bin Laden's death to your children?

Here to help us make sense of this is psychotherapist, Dr. Robi Ludwig.

Thank you for joining. What age is appropriate to tell your child, look, this is happening, this is who bin Laden is, this is what's going on?

DR. ROBI LUDWIG, PSYCHOTHERAPIST: You know, I think you generally want to wait for your kids to ask questions and follow their lead, because you don't want to traumatize your child. And also when a child is younger than eight years old, they don't really have an idea about death, death doesn't seem permanent. So, you have to consider the age group of the child, as well.

ROMANS: It's a difficult conversation. Even if you're walking down the street you're seeing him on "Time" magazine with an "X" through him, you're seeing it on computer screens, on television screens, in newspapers and you may even be seeing images that go all the way back to September 11 which were also very traumatic. Some very young children might not get it, but they're kind of being exposed to it. If your child asks you, how do you -- what do you say?

LUDWIG: You be honest and you basically explain how Osama bin Laden was a bad guy and he killed lots of women, children, men, and so we're celebrating the fact that this man is dead and he can't hurt anybody anymore. And so you try to help them understand, we're not celebrating somebody was killed or someone is dead, but that this is a bad person and you might want to reference something like the "Wizard of Oz" and remember when the wicked witch died and everybody celebrated so she couldn't hurt anyone any more, it's very similar to that concept.

ROMANS: Because there is this tough thing as a parent to talk -- to show or see the celebration in the streets over the killing of someone, when maybe the child doesn't understand what that killing represents.

LUDWIG: And I think that's probably what a lot of kids will notice. Why are people cheering somebody's dead, I don't understand that. So this is a good way for parents to frame it, that bad people get punished so they can't hurt people.

ROMANS: One thing that I've heard some parents say is they've just -- people, you know, have been talking about how you handle it or what your children are saying, they've been focusing on the fact maybe we're safer now. This is about making you safe and us safe. Don't feel anxiety, this is about being safer.

LUDWIG: And kids see things in concrete, black and white terms, so even though we can't ever say that things are 100 percent safe, you want to underscore a child's safety because they may see images that scare them and they feel anxious or nervous and the job of the parent is to say, "you are safe."

ROMANS: You know, Robi, this is also a moment that's happening in classrooms around the country. I want to bring in Michelle, the newly minted 2011 "Teacher of the Year."

Michelle Shearer, when it comes to the classroom, what's been your experience about trying to explain all of this, the Twin Towers, the war on terror, Saddam Hussein, these are very scary, big things that clearly can be teachable moments?

MICHELLE SHEARER, 2011 TEACHER OF THE YEAR: Well, I was in my classroom on September 11 when the attack happened and, of course, I watched it unfold with my students and we had to make sense of it together and it was a very difficult and confusing time and when you work with high schoolers in particular, you know, high schoolers have strong opinions about a lot of topics, it's very emotionally charged.

We teach diverse students in our classrooms, they come from different backgrounds, different cultures, so everybody's bringing a different experience and as you said, teachers are human beings and we have our own opinions and experiences.

So, in order to make it all work we really have to facilitate the discussion in a way that everybody can feel respected and that you can discuss the events that are so important but yet in a way that calms emotions and keeps everybody looking at it as objectively as possible even though that's very difficult with something so emotionally charged.

ROMANS: All right, thank you both. Very great advice and observations from both of you. Dr. Robi Ludwig, thank you so much. And Michelle Shearer.

Michelle, I want you to stay with us because we're going to talk about this concept of a gradeless grade school. Think of this, it's a place where age doesn't matter, and you have to prove yourself before you can move on to the next level.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ROMANS: Don't you all remember the name of your first grade teacher? Hi, Mrs. Moore (ph).

But that grade school memory for some kids might be a thing of the past. There's a revolutionary approach to education taking root in some schools across the country and guess what, the focus on standardized testing is a very small part of the measuring what kids know.

Enter the gradeless grade school and CNN's Deb Feyerick.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just outside Denver, Colorado, something interesting is happening in at Hodgkin's Elementary School.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're working on measuring using a string.

FEYERICK: Kids discovering a different way of learning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's an X-ray of --

FEYERICK: Victor Perez and Dulse Garcia (ph) are both 11-years- old. Ask them what grade they're in, you won't get a traditional answer.


FEYERICK (on camera): You are?


FEYERICK: What about reading?


FEYERICK: And you are?


FEYERICK (voice-over): At Hodgkin's, there are no grade levels. In fact, there are no grades period. Kids are based on what they know, not how old they are.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're talking about main ideas and facts from a nonfiction book.

FEYERICK: Jennifer Gregg's literacy class made up of kids ages eight to 10 with four different reading levels.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's so individualized. We're filling in their gaps so that they can move on.

FEYERICK: It's known as Standards Based Learning, modeled on the belief every child learns in their own way.

SARAH GOULD, PRINCIPAL, HODGKIN'S ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: Every student in every class is learning exactly the spot that they're supposed to.

FEYERICK: Principal Sarah Gould helped put this system in place two years ago.

GOULD: For the first time, every child is getting exactly what they need, when they need it, and how they need it.

FEYERICK: No one moves to the next level without testing at the equivalent of a C or higher.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One hundred, you guys all got 100.

FEYERICK: And unlike traditional schools kids move up any time they're ready.

(on camera): How many have gone up a level this year? Wow.

(voice-over): The entire school district has been on an academic watch list because of below-average standardized test scores. Mother and school board president, Vicky Marshall helped convince parents they needed to try this and make it work.

VICKY MARSHALL, SCHOOL BOARD PRESIDENT: Their biggest concerns were around how are you going to assign a grade point average.

FEYERICK: But changing course is not easy. Educators estimate it takes three to five years for standardized test scores to go up. So far, 300 schools nationwide have tried it, half couldn't stick with it.

Wendy Battino, who helps implement the model, says without strong leadership and community support it won't work.

WENDY BATTINO, REINVENTING SCHOOLS COALITION: This is really hard. Superintendent lasts, what, two, two-and-a-half years on average? It's hard to lead systemic change when you have that much turnover.

FEYERICK: And though state test scores here haven't gone up, Principal Gould is still on board. Why? She says discipline problems dropped 76 percent since the change and students now are more motivated than ever.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, Westminster, Colorado.


ROMANS: 2011 national "Teacher of the Year," Michelle Shearer is with us.

Michelle, should, school by school, this be how we tweak things that work for them? Should there be strict national standards? Is there a place for a gradeless grade school in the system, do you think?

SHEARER: Well, I can definitely relate it to the concept. I teach A.P. chemistry and within my own classroom I teach 10th, 11th and 12th grade students, so that's a combination of students ages 14 through 18 and it works for that course at the high school level. I think it's interesting that they're experimenting with this at the elementary school level.

My question would be, how does this work, interdisciplinary -- with interdisciplinary connections? For example, if a student is at a fifth grade level in reading, but yet at a seventh grade level in mathematics, how do you accommodate both of those needs? And also how do you coordinate logistics in a large school? But it does recognize that student learning is very individualized and we need to take that into consideration.

ROMANS: Maybe some children if they're two levels behind in one area though, maybe that identifies them for more help in that particular area, too, even if they are better in some of the other subjects, something that maybe if you're in grade by grade classroom doesn't.

But you know, Bill Bennett, he's a CNN contributor, former secretary of Education in the Reagan administration.

Bill, who knows best? Is it school by school, national standards? Is there room for gradeless grades if that happens to work, for example, here in Colorado?

BILL BENNETT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Sure. First may I offer my congratulations Michelle, Teacher of the Year. Congratulations, great work.

SHEARER: Thank you. Thank you.

BENNETT: A.P. chemistry, how about that? Yes, sure I think this is fine. Notice it's called "revolutionary."

This could look a little like the one-room school house, couldn't it? With a bunch of kids of different ages learning different things at different levels and indeed it looks like many of the home school situations I know of where there are six or seven kids.

But the point is, Michelle's absolutely right, kids learn different subjects at different levels. Child can be way up in math and way behind in reading or vice versa. But notice, you don't have to choose against some reasonable tests.

In the feature that Deb was talking about, the child doesn't advance to the next level until the child has demonstrated proficiency. So, that's fine with me. What I think is, let schools operate the way they want, the how is up to them. The end I think we can all agree on, competency, literacy, numerous.

ROMANS: OK, Michelle Shearer, national "Teacher of the Year," Bill Bennett, our good friend and education consultant, also former education secretary under Ronald Reagan. Thanks both of you, really appreciate it. Have a great weekend.

SHEARER: Thank you.

BENNETT: Thank you.

ROMANS: Now, the economy is technically recovering, but student loan debt has for the first time ever surpassed credit card debt. You're taking on more debt than ever to get an education from sky high tuition to the three-year college plan, how do you make sure college is worth it for you?


ROMANS: As we've reported, student loan Debt is projected to top a trillion dollars this year. Do I have your attention? A trillion dollars. More than credit card Debt. We need to figure out a way to make college more affordable.

CNN contributor and former Education secretary, Bill Bennett is still with us, and joining the conversation another former Education secretary and Republican senator from Tennessee, Lamar Alexander.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining me.

Senator Alexander, let's talk first about this idea of three-year degrees. You and I have spoken about this before. You're a big advocate of this. There are some schools across the country -- I'm going to show these to you, folks -- they have three year graduation programs, they are schools like Ball State, Bates College, Franklin and Marshall, Hartwig College, Judson, Lipscomb University, Southern New Hampshire University, there are others, as well, Hartwick College in New York says a bachelor's degree, a three-year degree will cut your cost by about 15 grand a year for a first-year student.

Obviously economics is a big driver here, Senator Alexander. Why are you a proponent of not for all kids, but kids who can do it, a three-year college degree?

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: Well, time and money are the two things. The three-year degree is not for everybody, but I think for higher education, the three-year degree might be the equivalent of the fuel efficient car because, take Hartwick college you mentioned, I think their tuition and fees are like $43,000 a year. So, if you do it in three instead of four years, you not only save the tuition and fees, you might save the 30 or 40 or $50,000 you could earn during the year you've graduated and in the marketplace.

ROMANS: Yes, you're out just one year earlier.

You know, Bill, though, the conventional wisdom is that kids go to college to mature, to find themselves. I mean, I get grief for saying it's an expensive way to find yourself. No other country in the world sees it that way as a way to find yourself and quite frankly, this isn't Generation X when we created 24 million jobs over 10 years. I mean, five years in school and not being focused right away, it's expensive. BENNETT: Yes. I have two sons, private colleges, I won't tell you the bill. I would have been good to win one of those quiz shows, the millionaire. But look, Lamar is raising important questions here and, you know, parents, wonder about this. There's now beginning to be a literature, very serious doubt, Christine, about this whole thing.

There's a man named Peter Thiel who believes that this is the next bubble that's about to burst, that when you look at the investment, whether it's by the taxpayers in the state of Tennessee or by payers or a combination of both, the question is whether people are getting their value. People say how can you argue with going to Harvard, look at Mark Zuckerberg and look at Bill Gates, two probably most famous and successful Harvard graduates, but dropped out of Harvard. Could they have this on their own and did they really need Harvard to do it? Obviously they didn't.

Supposing people start to question this in a hard way, could we see some change? I studied the question of raising tuitions at colleges and universities, there are some legitimate reasons for raising, other reason is, they can do it because they can do it. They can get away with it because there's no number of members of the family, no sacrifice parents will not, you know, go through to send their kids to college. This may begin to get some question.

ROMANS: Well, a college tuition is up 400 percent since the 1980s and Bill you make a good point here, for 20 years, people took money out of their house to put their kids through school because they've been listening to us say, your kid has to get a college degree to get ahead in the world. I want to ask both of you, are we putting too much emphasis on bachelor degrees. Should we be doing more emphasis on trade schools, vocational training, community colleges -- Senator Alexander.

ALEXANDER: I think starting in the community college is a terrific idea. As I mentioned a little earlier, in Tennessee, you can go to a community college, live at home, tuition about $3,000 a year, if you qualify for a Pell grant, if you're low-income, it's even less. And then you might transfer to a community college is a terrific idea. And then you might transfer to a four-year college to finish your degree. That's one way to save college costs.

And if you're not ready for that kind of college experience, Nashville Auto Diesel College turns out a lot of terrific mechanics, people who work in the auto industry that make good incomes, they're well educated by the time they finish that job. ROMANS: You know, Bill, what do you think? There's some great careers, the called ladder jobs, the skilled jobs you can go on to become a small business owner, you can go on to employ other people. You don't necessarily need a four-year degree. Are we misleading people by constantly pushing that you need to take on tens of thousands of student debt to get a degree where you're in a job market where, you know, unless you're in science, technology, engineer, math, there might not get a job.

BENNETT: Yes, Christine, we are and there is some snobbishness in this and there's some wrong understandings of utility. I remember a seminar I went to, supposedly 15 of the most intelligent people in the country, all with many postdoctoral degrees, there was a failure in the sprinkler system, we all started getting wet, not a single person knew what to do. Not a single person knew what the heck to do. You know, now, that's where we needed Lamar's community college graduate who knows how to fix things. You know?

John Dewey said, once, It's not enough for a man to be good, but he has to be good for something, and we need to remember the importance of practical knowledge, particularly in a world in which we live in which we have so many more things that can break.

ROMANS: Thank you both.

You know, Senator Alexander, I love your idea of the three-year colleges because for some kids this will make a lot of sense and save money for them, not for everybody, but while we're waiting to make college more affordable, in general, it's something that if you've got a kid who is a top student, you might be able to do. But again, you've got to be focused and we can't, you know, we've got to be more serious about how we're going to educate our kids, if we're going to compete in the world.

Bill Bennett, Senator Lamar Alexander, thank you both for joining me. Have a great weekend.

ALEXANDER: Thank you, Christine.

ROMANS: to win the future, we have to out-educate and out- innovate. While your kid is thinking about kickball, we need to be preparing him for engineering. How the careers of the future belong to the innovators.


ROMANS: Science, technology, engineering, math and art? Talk about filling an education vacuum. James Dyson is the founder and chief engineer of Dyson, the iconic vacuum cleaner company. He's hoping to spark a science renaissance in American schools.

Welcome to the program. Tell me, what does a rich, British inventor who went to art school, why are you so passionate about these innovation and science careers in the U.S.?

JAMES DYSON, DYSON: Well, the thing is that we're producing fewer engineers and scientists than we need in the future. I think that the jobs are being created in the scientific and engineering sector at a 70 times faster rate than any other sector. China and India are producing hundreds of thousands more engineers than we are. And, so, I think our children are missing out on the fun and excitement of science, engineering and design.

ROMANS: And, you know, it's that fun and excitement that will be the jobs of the future. The innovators will have the jobs of the future, yet, you're working with the Chicago public schools right now to promote stem education and to raise science cores, which according to Institution of Education and Science (INAUDIBLE) one percent of Chicago's 8th grade students rated advanced on scientific proficiency. Nearly 71 percent failed to meet basic standards. How are you going to try to raise those standards?

DYSON: Well, we want to do after-school classes where children can learn to build things that they've designed themselves. The thing is that when you see something and perhaps in everyday life that you doesn't work, you can actually set and try and solve the problem. And in solving the problem you're using math and physics that you've learnt with other subjects.

So, the wonderful thing about doing an engineering and design class after school is that you can use what you're learning in school to make something that's relevant and exciting for you. And the most important thing is that in doing this you'll be making mistakes. You're not allowed in any other lesson at school to make mistakes. But mistakes are really important because you learn from mistakes --

ROMANS: And I think a lot of --

DYSON: That's how I made my vacuum cleaner.

ROMANS: The most famous inventors, really, you're right, you've talking about your vacuum cleaner, but a lot of the most famous inventors and inventors have many, many mistakes before they hit on the big thing. I think that's a really good thing that we should celebrating mistakes and learning from them, as well.

But tell me what you were going to say about your vacuum cleaner.

DYSON: Well actually, I always used to thing that children at school should be marked by how many mistakes they make, not how many correct tics. Because if you make a mistake, you learn something, you learn something from it, you wonder why you made the mistake.

But, when I made my vacuum cleaner, I built 5,127 prototypes. So all of them were mistakes and failures, except the last one. At only reason I could get there, the only reason I could make an invention and be able to file patents at the patent office is that I've done things no one else had done because I've made all those mistakes and learnt from them.

So, it's in an autodidact sense if you teach yourself from learning from mistakes rather than being taught by rote and just taking in facts that people tell you. If you can start to learn at school to be able to create things, learn from your mistakes and do something that no one else has done before, that's the most wonderful and exciting thing.

ROMANS: And we have to make it fun, too. I mean, and that's the simple question of engineering for kids, in particular, design, engineering, science, to intrigue them but also make it fun. How do we do that?

DYSON: Well, you do that by making it more practical by using your brain and your hands together. That's really my point. If you learn about physics, about structures and what makes a beam strong, for example, and then in your new class you go and you make, for example, a bridge spanning two tables out of cardboard that holds a very heavy book, you're applying the engineering you've learnt about beam strength and you can use your mathematics to design the bridge in a very economical way to support that book and that's a fantastic achievement.

Building bridges is incredibly important and children can understand that a bridge just doesn't just happen, someone designs it, someone creates it and someone makes it work so that lots of people can drive over that bridge every day. That's the really exciting thing about engineering; you're creating things that make people's lives possible.

ROMANS: Fantastic.

James Dyson, thank you so much for joining us and best of luck in Chicago with your program. We'll talk to you soon about innovation and the future and how to merge all of that with education. Thank you, Sir.

That's going to wrap things up for us this morning. Back now to "CNN SATURDAY" for other stories making news, right now.