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Living and Learning (Let’s Hope)

by Mike Bailey |

Welcome back to Peoria Magazine’s Education edition. It’s a provocative, don’t-you-dare-miss-it read, I must say.

It arrives at a challenging time for schools and the children they serve. “The math and reading performance of 13-year-olds in the United States has hit the lowest level in decades, according to test scores released today from the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” the New York Times reported on June 21.

Another Times story spoke to the “pandemic plunge in U.S. history” exam results. COVID-19 did a number on the nation’s schoolchildren, no doubt about it, but I’d be wary of under-assigning the potential causes. Indeed, it’s easy to overlook the next paragraph that addresses the “downward trend that began nearly a decade ago.” For too many students, things haven’t been clicking in the classroom for a while. When basic reading skills fall short, learning suffers in every subject.

Meanwhile, some kids are struggling with emotional issues, in part because they’re spending too much time on social media. So says the U.S. Surgeon General, who warns of its “profound risk of harm to the … well-being of children and adolescents.” A Peoria counselor testifies that “conversations about the phone come up in every therapy session I’ve had with parents and their children.” Central Illinois school superintendents say that “student mental health” is what keeps them up at night in terms of building safety.

I have grandchildren. I get it. And it really is OK for parents to be parents.

On another front, many Americans are staggering under a mountain of college debt, causing some to question whether higher education is still worth the investment. (It is, though it’s advisable to seriously weigh your choices of college and major). And even those with degrees, good jobs and pay are worried about what technology, specifically the rise of Artificial Intelligence, has in store for them. (See the Hollywood writers/actors strike.)

Whether AI is a modern miracle that will immeasurably improve our lives or Frankenstein’s monster depends upon your point of view, but in any case, we go where no Peoria Magazine has gone before with a little experiment: a story written by ChatGPT — dubbed CheatGPT by some — the chatbot developed by the company OpenAI.

We asked the app to “assess the quality of kindergarten-through-12th grade education in the Peoria, Illinois metropolitan area relative to its school peers statewide,” and in seconds — literally — it spit out 650 words that I found to be formulaic and monotonous but otherwise passably written. It interviewed no one, quoted no one, broke no new ground, pulling the information from existing data. And it will get better.

Might there be a day when magazines like this one come with the motto, “Written by humans, for humans”?

It does feel like AI is going to change everything. For better or worse remains to be seen. The challenge is to not become tools of the tool, otherwise it will be “NASA, we have a problem.”

Our cover photo, by the inimitable Jonathon Romain and entitled “Hide and Seek,” depicts a young man sitting on a pile of books. They form a foundation beneath him. It’s hard to tell how happy he is about his seat in life. He seems to be withholding judgment about the world before him. It’s a complicated place, so he can be forgiven. 

Ultimately, we march forward, or fall behind. It’s not really a choice. We at Peoria Magazine will take the first path, celebrating the remarkable work happening all around us. Read — and think — about it in the pages to follow. Enjoy.

Mike Bailey

Mike Bailey

is editor in chief of Peoria Magazine [email protected]