Steve Jobs' passing last week encouraged Americans to consider how technology has transformed our lives. Fueled by the creative genius of men like Jobs, new technology has emerged allowing us to better keep in touch with friends and family, access entertainment and information, and perform work from home or wherever we happen to be at that moment.
While we've successfully integrated technology into our workplaces and personal lives, we've been comparatively slow to apply technology's power to other areas of life, like education. That needs to change.
For decades, we've heard that our K-12 public schools fail to deliver. Government has poured in hundreds of billions, but with little return. In fact, per pupil spending has tripled in real terms during the last 40 years while test scores have stagnated.
Why are our schools so bad? Many factors contribute, but a root cause is a basic structure that fails to encourage innovation or reward results. Many American classrooms are almost indistinguishable from those that students' grandparents attended. Twenty-something students still sit in desks facing the front of the classroom, with textbooks, listening to a generalist teacher.
Some schools try to hamstring computers into that 1950s mold. Indeed, getting a “computer in every classroom” has been a battle cry for political candidates on the left and right, at every level of government. Yet simply sticking computers or other new technologies into existing structures is unlikely to do more than increase costs and yield the same disappointing results.
A new perspective is needed. Americans need to consider the fundamental question: How can we most effectively teach kids the skills they need?
The answer won't be the same for everyone, but promising new models are emerging.
Carpe Diem Academy in Yuma, Arizona, for example, uses what's called a blended learning approach, with students accessing computer-based instruction, and then working with master teachers and teaching coaches to apply those lessons. Carpe Diem students have made dramatic gains on Arizona's standardized test, and the school's model is being replicated elsewhere.
Parents can augment or even replace their children's traditional school experience with programs from companies like K-12. This service allows parents to enroll children in virtual schools or purchase specific curriculum. Traditional materials—worksheets, books, and other physical materials—are combined with online resources, including multimedia presentations.
What's the guarantee that these new technologies will really yield better results? There is none. And parents and education providers will have to assess carefully the products that are available, scrutinizing the materials provided by companies eager to make sales, to make sure that selected services make sense for their unique students.
It won't be a perfect process. Those vested in defending the status quo are quick to point out some technologies' lackluster results. They seize on examples of a company cherry picking results to condemn the concept of greater competition in education. While it's certainly true that no system can prevent all forms of gaming (consider the test-score cheating scandal that has rocked Atlanta's
public schools), that's why decisions about what products and services to buy should be made on a local or even individual level, so that mistakes are confined to a relatively small scale.
Americans are familiar with how this process works. We've all witnessed the rise and fall of a wide variety of technologies. Video cassette buyers feel temporarily burned when their technologies are surpassed, but we know the process of creative destruction inevitably, if imperfectly, pushed quality and efficiency higher. We need that process to take place in education.
The key to encouraging a truly dynamic education marketplace is unlocking the resources we already spend so that parents can seek the education models that will work best for their children.
Traditional schools may be best for some students, while others will thrive in moire high-tech learning centers.
If parents controlled the more than $100,000 that we currently invest in their child's K-12 education, rather than simply having to accept an assigned seat at their 1950s-style local public school, entrepreneurs would have tremendous incentive to find solutions that work.
We've witnessed a revolution in how Americans stay in touch with friends, work, and communicate. Isn't it passed time to have a revolution in how we learn? Solutions are out there if we will only allow our innovative American marketplace to find the answers.