Why Solve Old Problems When a New Problem is Easier?

A couple of years ago conventional wisdom in edreform swung to ‘great teachers in every classroom.’  With Race to the Top as backdrop, the theory is obviously much thicker, but that’s the gist.  The better answer is ‘great learning experiences for every student.’  Here’s why.
In 1994, when I become a superintendent, we had no data. By 2004, we all had annual achievement data. By 2014, most schools will have a flood of data.
In 1994, we argued about peer review because there was no data.  In 2004, we argued about value-added because it was the best way to piece together what little information we had.  By 2014, many of us in 1:1 environments will evaluate every learning experience with keystroke data.
Most folks in the sector contemplate if and how technology will be added to what we call school.  As a tech optimist from a different planet (ie, someone with a business background) I don’t start with the assumption of school as it exists and I do see technology as inevitably central to k12 learning.  (This post is the second is a series about solving the right problem.  Over the weekend, a blog explored the difference between the uber-assessment system introduced in four year compared to an evolving assessment framework starting now.)
The conventional wisdom is working the old problem: how to get a great teacher in every classroom?   A recent report from Public Impact suggested that we can’t solve this problem.   And even if we could, putting talented teachers into an obsolete model simply wouldn’t achieve the results we need.
The right question is: what sequence of learning experiences will help individual students succeed?  This question doesn’t presume the schools we have.  It does presume technology enabled personalized learning blending multiple modes.
Cities are arguing about value added evaluation—another example of working an old problem.  There’s no excuse for not using the data we have, but it may be easier to build a new learning platform that evaluates every experience rather than glue together annual bubble sheet tests to pay individual bonuses.  The point is this: rather than trying to solve an old intractable problem, reframe it as a design challenge around new opportunities.  A forward lean may make the solution easier.
Good teachers in bad schools won’t fix the problem.  Attracting talent and placing them in dysfunctional school models (wrong structure, wrong curriculum, wrong staffing, wrong culture, wrong pay system) has no hope of working. This reminds me of visiting enthusiastic TFAers in New Orleans pre-Katrina—there was simply no hope of individual success or collective reform without starting over.
If we want to shift to hiring the middle third of college grads rather than trolling the bottom third, we’ll need a new employment bargain—better starting salaries, better advancement opportunities, more reward for initiative, responsibility, and performance.  We’ll also need new and more attractive working conditions of knowledge workers rather than baby sitters.
Let’s start with the Core than then consider: what sequence of learning experiences will help individual students succeed?  That question forces us to consider how individual students learn.  It requires us to think about:

    *platforms that queue powerful learning experiences
    *policies that assume (not prevent) 24/7/365 student access
    *application and integration opportunities that leverage community resources
    *roles for learning professionals in the system
    *human resource practices that recruit and develop great learning professionals

What is making the Digital Learning Council conversations interesting is that many of the members are not ‘layer it on’ people, they are ‘what if’ people.  Governor’s Bush and Wise are leading an effort that will recommend a series of fundamental changes to the America education system.  I think they’ll show America that taking advantage of a new opportunity is easier than solving an old intractable problem.

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

Manisha Razdan

What I read here seems great but is it a pragmatic reality in India or will it remain a Utopian concept...remains to be seen. however Kudos to the minds behind this reform process


Douglas Crets

Manisha, thank you for posting your thoughts. Can you help me understand more about what the barriers are that make it a Utopian concept? Thank you.

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