Flat Lining Schools; Tinkering Won’t Work

This week the “The Nation’s Report Card” showed no progress.  That’s really quite disturbing given aggressive federal policy (NCLB), a handful of cities like New York making real progress, states like Louisiana and Florida pushing hard, and national foundation efforts.
It suggests that tinkering won’t come close to the President’s goal of leading the world in college completion by 2020. We have 1950 schools (age cohorts slogging through textbooks) and employment bargains (job protection with back loaded benefits) struggling with 2010 students aiming at 2020 goals—just doesn’t add up.  We’d need to see fulfillment of all the promises made in Race to the Top applications and then some to hit the target.
Flat line achievement and attainment suggests that we need an innovation agenda—one quite different than the President’s education Blueprint which falls short on the national ‘good school promise’ (a common baseline school accountability system) and adds some competitive grants.  Sadly, it may be the only deal this Congress could cut—more flexibility for states and more money for things that a few key Republicans and Democrats like.
We’ve dug a big hole—15,000 districts have really bad policies intertwined with really bad employment bargains.  We need to work on fixing and replacing simultaneously.
I’m a big fan of Race to the Top—already the most successful grant program in history before a dime is spent.  It encourages high common standards, stronger data systems, and better teacher preparation and evaluation.  While the President and Secretary deserve a lot of credit for taking on historical alliances around teacher quality, their plans will require local renegotiation several thousand times over.
But this is all ‘inside baseball’ stuff that may bump the curve but won’t hit the target.  Missing ingredients in the President’s blueprint include:
1. A sense of imagination for how personalized learning technology and new school formats can improve learning and financial productivity (there’s a nod this direction in the national edtech plan but I don’t see it in the Blueprint for reauthorizing federal policy).
2. Encouragement for private investment in new tools, schools, and services.  Every other public delivery system relies heavily on private sector capabilities for producing and scaling innovation.  Other than textbooks, testing and technology, education largely excludes the private sector.  Rather than expanding private sector investment, the President’s Blueprint suggests killing a successful private sector initiative providing free tutoring program serving 500,000 low-income students effectively putting hundreds of education entrepreneurs out of business.
3. An innovation agenda that encourages online learning options—there is no way to offer high quality science and math options to every American student without full access to broadband and next generation online learning.  There are still states (including the three I visited this week: NY, NJ, and CT) that virtually outlaw virtual  learning.  Others stop the Internet at county or district lines or limit competition from private providers.
In the last few years, the capability has been developed for anyone to learn almost anything online.  Any prepared student anywhere in the world can go online and earn a college degree from a respected institution.  Why do we still have 1950 schools with most teachers laboring in isolation?
Leading the world in college completion will require a new generation of tools and schools; that will require an education sector open to investment and innovation.  But perhaps even more important, it will take a sense of imagination.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Karim Logue

I agree with your comment re: the important role that private entrepreneurs can play in public education. As the founder of Mathalicious, a startup that provides real-world math content to classroom teachers, I was somewhat disappointed when most of the federal grants and incentives (e.g. RT^3) were specifically designated for schools and districts.
That said, I would propose a quick amendment to the post. You note that we have "1950" schools, which is true. However, we also have "1950" content. Do textbooks teach slope any differently than they did mid-century? Ratios and proportions? Today we have the iPhone and the iPad, but are these being used to teach similar figures?
Ultimately, I'm confident that it isn't only about changing how we teach, but changing the *what* we teach. You can have the best administration in the most beautiful building with the fastest internet, but if the students are still learning antiquated material, then how far can their imagination extend?

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