If We Want to Change Education, We Need to Disrupt It

What do you think our greatest improvements have been in the educational sector in the past couple of years?

  1. Has it been the number of students graduating high school?

  2. Has it been the technology introduced to support teachers in the classroom?

  3. Is it the growth of online learning expanding the footprint of higher education beyond the ivory tower?

  4. Could it be the evolving business model under which we operate?

To really address the issue of improvements, I’d propose that we ask ourselves first whether our educational system is adequately preparing today’s student for the workplace of tomorrow. Are we?

Is Anything Really New?

A while back, I attended a Google + Hangout hosted by the American Enterprise Institute called “Can you be for profit and for students? Rethinking private enterprise in public education.” It brought together John Bailey from Digital Learning Now, Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly of the AEI, and Michael B. Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute. My interest, at the time, was in the debate over private dollars in public education. I’d seen resistance to this for so long and was thrilled that progress was being made to frankly get support from the private sector.

At that time, the discussion yielded a few key takeaways:

  1. A lot of the argument against for-profits was in a simplification of the role for-profits could play.

Andrew Kelly raised an interesting point in noting that 70% of Americans were comfortable with private dollars going to food, transportation, and supplies but not whole school management.

If you look at the different roles for-profits can play, this may reveal a misconception over the intent that many for-profits have and the role they can play in improving educational access and quality.

  1. We can learn from how federal policy deals with private sector contributions to other sectors.

A lot was said in this discussion around the role that policy can play in incentivizing the private sector to support positive results in education. As John Bailey point out, in almost every other sector (health care, clean energy, space program), the consideration has not been whether or not to engage with the private sector, but how to bring them in to tackle the challenge. Education, Bailey noted, is very unique in that incentives have not been provided to make such a collaboration work. And therefore, for-profits have largely had to work outside of the system to get things done. Michael Horn added to this argument that with i3 came out “the engine of innovation was cut out of the game.”

  1. There’s enough to be done so that we can all play a part.

As an extension of the first two points, John Bailey highlighted the role of collaboration, stating that “a blended solution” wherein “the suite of tools, services, and resources that the private sector will develop” can be used inside of the institutions. These benefits of innovation funded by the private sector could be used to support the existing institutions rather than breaking into institutional management. Likewise, expertise in instructional design, program design, and business modeling shared from the private sector can lend great support to the improvement of our schools, from K-12 through higher education.

At the time, my own conclusion was that a balanced, collaborative approach would yield the best result, that based on the need to produce revenue, for-profit educational providers would be watching the bottom line and that this could be a good thing when the pursuit of quality is as important. Additionally, I felt that with technology driving innovation, collaborating with those with the greatest access to capital to drive innovation, could be a smart move.

Now I’m not entirely sure.

What is needed to truly innovate in education

That technology is being used to great effect is not the issue here. It is being used to great effect. In these following areas, the use of private dollars to help drive innovation has resulted in improvements in:

  1. Blended learning models and programs

  2. Gamification

  3. Professional development

But remember that millions of dollars are also being spent to support the Common Core and its associated testing, which in turn is really an extension of an existing model of education that remains stale and disengaging for a large number of constituents. Amy Scott reported on Marketplace yesterday that a single multiple-choice question costs $1,000 with costs ranging between $3,000 to $5,000 per question for more open-ended questions.

To truly innovate would be to take a look at this constituency and really understand how they can best thrive both during the school years and into the workplace. So take at least some of that money spent to make our kids better test takers, and instead provide them with more experiences and skills that prepare them for an adult world:

  1. Experiential, hands-on learning

  2. Expanded mentorship programs

  3. Community-based internships

Question the Model

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Ed came out with an article on the Thiel Fellowship, titled “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club.” If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know about Peter Thiel, he is the PayPal co-founder, Facebook board member and investor who decided in 2010 to pay selected teenagers $100,000 each to “stop out” of college and work on their own start-ups. While there are those who question Thiel’s methods, I’m a huge fan because he addresses the heart of the issue, which is the model itself. The article points out that Thiel initially considered building a better university through his foundation, but instead decided “The opposite of putting faith in the system is putting faith in the young people.”

Granted, the model isn’t expandable, but like other emerging like-minded organizations, it is calling into question the accepted standard for success that has been in operation for so long. UnCollege and Enstitute are others that I have mentioned here before, providing alternate pathways to the working world.

So, while we have made progress with dropout rates, there are still 1.2 million kids a year who leave school. The system still appears to be broken. And that is where we have to begin, questioning the model itself.

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