Invest, Innovate, Educate
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  • Anthony

    WRM, development of new educational system requires several considerations: (1) certainly investment and innovation; but innovation is generally driven generationally. (2) reinvention of education narrative; is it the system that does the most good and if so for whom and when. (3) honest discussion vis-a-vis education promise for range of skills at K-12; there really exist an inequality of ability (educationally). (4) circumventing the varied interests enmeshed in delivering k-12 education; monies/contracts/subsidies at all levels of government misallocate capital. (5) seeing the world differently; as E.D. Hirsch has advocated competence and equality at K-12 level a key to American success.

    At one level, education is where “the rubber meets the road” and technology can facilitate its reach/delivery/method; yet, we cannot overestimate its value at every level pre-K to adult even with VCs involved.

  • “One important step to improve American education would be to use technology to support more effective education.
    This will only happen as more companies develop and market new programs and products…”


    I have colleagues with PhDs who can’t use a spreadsheet to manage grades, and are totally baffled by course management systems. So if tech is the next step with the left foot, then a revolution in the heads and hearts of the faculty should be the next step with the right. So far, we’ve either been stumbling, or going in circles.

  • gooch mango

    OK… if you’re tired of hearing the word “education” as the supposed solution to every problem, please raise your hand.

    Better education has its place in fixing some of what ails us, but lack of education is NOT the primary problem we face today; it is the mismatch between the type of jobs available, the value we place on those jobs, and the paths open to achieving those positions on one hand, and the actual, real-world make-up of our workforce on the other.

    As I see it, there are three basic types of people in the world: head people, heart people, and hands people. Many folks have abilities in all three of those arenas, but for most, there is one category that dominates, one approach that fits best.

    The trouble is that we’ve allowed one type, the head people (technocrats), to run things for too long, and they have been busy reshaping the country in their own image. They’ve spent the past 70 years stripping value from non-technocratic jobs, and adding layers of technocratic screens to the few non-technocratic careers remaining… screens like classroom time, testing, and degrees. It didn’t used to be this way, and it doesn’t have to be going forward. In fact, it can’t be if we’re ever again to be the land of opportunity.

    Education can offer access to certain packets of skills, but it cannot turn a heart or hands person into a head person… and those who offer “education” as the pat answer to all our problems are demanding it do just that, whether they realize it or not.

    Offering up “education as the key” is exactly what we’ve been doing for the past few decades; it has given us the nation we have today. Continuing down this path will only give us more of what we already have — a job market designed to reward only about a third of our workers. Is that really what we want?

    Now go back and look that the article… and what do you see? A bunch of solutions that give advantage to those who already have the advantage… just another process oriented solution designed by technocrats to make a few more of us technocrats, with nothing for anyone else. A slightly more efficient version of what we already have today.

    Worth pursuing, but not nearly enough.

  • bob

    My daughter works for one of the major K-12 textbook companies. They tailor all of their books to the requirements of the Texas Board of Education. The influence of other schools systems is negligible.

    Also, it is clear that the US already spends far too much money on public education, and additional monies will have no impact on educational outcomes. In fact, we would do well to reduce educational expenditures by half or more.

    As to outcomes, when the PISA scores of American students are broken out by race, we do as well as any other country. The problem is not the quality of the schools. The problem is the quality of the students.

  • BillH

    The correct premise is, AFTER PARENTING, Education is where the rubber meets the road: it is the system which does the most, good or bad, to produce a generation of Americans who will be able to operate effectively in the more entrepreneurial workplace….

  • As someone who spent their career in educational technology I’m cautious, even skeptical, of technology’s power to transform education. Ever since we grasped the exponential gains that were to be had from industrialization and the division of labor, we have sought to make similar scale gains in education. While I agree with WRM’s critique of the current system I don’t think it is a matter of getting the technology right, because learning requires student effort – what my dad used to call the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. In other words – work which all of us, children especially, resist. What I think will happen is that because the internet makes getting an education much more accessible, as libraries did in the past, we will see a increase in brilliant autodidacts which in turn may reduce the gatekeeping monopoly of schools. Put another way, once disintermediation changes the old structures there will more opportunity for venture capital. Something like that kind of process will be key part of a more entrepreneurial society.

  • JKB

    It’s not the technology that is the problem, it’s the humans. How we teach students and how we learn are near polar opposites.

    Humans learn by doing and by thinking but the school system is set up for passive learning. Information is handed to them in neat packages, rather than discovered. Recitation is predictable and generally requires no manipulation. But then how do you manage a large group of immature students who are in the classroom, being exposed to the topic by herding and fiat rather than interest. Note, how years of education causes such passivity in college students, who do have a choice of sorts and are paying for the privilege.

    And the reward system doesn’t really promote the outside classroom work to really assimilate the knowledge unless it applies to something of interest to the student. Thus those who develop an interest in a subject, learn it. Those who don’t, learn to pass the test.

    And education fails to teach the one valuable skill, how to study. How to learn a topic in which your interest is weak. Some supposedly develop the skill around year 14 or so, given the formal name, critical thinking. However, by then, those who would gain the most from the skill, those finding school confusing and difficult, have left education with a sense similar to that of the parolee. A sense of relief at having done their time, a desperate need never to go back and institutionalized to find learning difficult, distressing, and to be avoided.

  • Brett

    While I’m all for giving teachers and principals greater local power over teaching (with some exceptions), I can’t really blame them for being risk-averse. If you have a whole bunch of dysfunctional private sector education experiments that don’t pan out, you end up with a bunch of kids with a messed-up education. You can’t simply say, “Oh, sorry, our mistake”.

  • Anthony

    “American K-12 education has two fundamental shortcomings, one in achievement and the other in equity: the competence gap and the equality gap.” This is an American issue not an issue of race disaggregation – OECD’s assessment of student achievement in thirty countries is telling (PISA – Program For International Student Assessment) and speaks to urgency of WRM’s invest, innovate, and educate.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The public school system will not improve in the absence of competition any more than the Detroit of 1962. So where will the competition come from?

    I have two favorites. First, and less likely is churches. Does the name The Episcopal Academy ring a bell? That the churches ceded childhood (k-8) education to the state is beyond me. They could regain relevance, interest and participation by investing their great mountains of cash and empty buildings in the future. Who knows, it might help contributions today.

    Second is Khaaaaaan.

  • Andrew Allison

    Two comments:
    Like some other commentators, I think there’s a limit to what technology can do for the grunt work of actually learning: the most likely way is to permit parents to escape from the disfunctional public education system by offering home-schooling to anybody who can afford it, at a dreadful cost to the children of those who cannot; and,
    Contrary to WRM’s assertion, the textbook publishers, who have been gouging students for decades, are doomed by eBooks. Were they not locked into their traditional business model, they would be leading the eBook charge. The textbook as we have known it is as dead as the Dodo.

  • Kenny

    Get the unions out of the classroom and then technology, innovations, and even competent teachers will flow in.

  • Tedd

    Why not get students involved in an open-source project to develop the software? Perhaps a few software engineers who are already involved with open source projects could act as mentors.

  • Rob Crawford

    Industry buys software to control and reduce costs. The incentives for public educators is to NOT control costs; they have no need for software.

  • George Tobin

    1) Success is racist or otherwise unfair. In private enterprise when one company innovates and profitably breaks from the pack, that is called success.

    If a public school did that, it would be called a disaster. It would instantly place unwanted pressure others to change and achieve. It would highlight disparities in talent, performance and resources of all kinds at all levels. Better a bland, predictable mediocrity that all the improvement via competition nonsense that government is supposed to insulate us from experiencing.

    2) Productivity is bad. An excellent core curriculum prepared and delivered by highly compensated super teachers lecturing via the internet supported by live support instructors would provide more uniform quality at lower cost. We have unions to prevent this kind of nonsense.

    3) Textbooks rule. The consummately stupid reliance on hideously expensive, quickly outdated paper products benefits only a few publishing houses uniquely equipped to deal with the weird requirements of public school bureaucracies. Our schools are designed to be the last barrier to the information revolution.

    Grand visions of public-private partnerships are pointless unless the very real structural and cognitive barriers can first be removed.

  • Margo

    Several comments point out the shortcomings of our students and our teachers. They are quite right that these are the main limiting factors and they would severely limit the sales of any great techological innovations. Of course, the shortcomings of students are precisely what the schools are supposed to counteract and correct. But they need strong motivation, which can be developed only through personal trust, and intensive guided practice in speaking, listening, and thinking (before we get to reading) which requires the supple brain of a thoughtful adult. Later on, practice reading with speech-recognition software and goodies like that can be helpful. But the big deficits need to be addressed in human language.

    About moving purchase decisions down from the district to the school level–principals and teachers making the decisions–remember that to the salesperson that is the equivalent of selling your watermelons one by one off the back of the truck. There is little middleman infrastructure of stores that sell directly to teachers and principals, especially for sizeable purchases.

  • m00tpoint

    Brett said: “If you have a whole bunch of dysfunctional private sector education experiments that don’t pan out, you end up with a bunch of kids with a messed-up education.”

    How is that outcome different from what we have today?

    At least if the private sector tries a number of approaches, some of them will work. And, of course, the comment ignores the common sense observation that different kids with different needs and aptitudes will probably do better with different learning environments, instead of the homogenized public monstrosity we have today.


  • Mike Myers

    Funding will be an issue. Right now public schools receive funds from a rather dizzying array of sources. Teaching and administrative positions come and go as dedicated grants from Sacramento or Washington D.C. are made available for specific purposes. School boards have lost control of their funding and their planning time horizon is no further than the next sip from the state or federal money hose.

  • pipedreams

    In California I’m seeing more and more parents and students emigrating to private schools. These are the people most interested in quality, and perhaps willing to experiment with new paradigms. Perhaps there is an association of private schools which might be the way to target the fastest expanding and most flexible market.

  • What makes anyone believe that the Democrat Party wants Americans capable of critical thinking?
    Democrat politicians want emotion-driven, selfish voters who are easily stampeded in whatever direction benefits the Democrats.
    In other words, exactly what exists now.

  • Sexypig

    Vouchers. Comptetition for customers will make the schools much more eager to innovate. listen to the CATO podcast called “replicating Superman” and you will see Sweden does this. One of the private schools there has a student-teacher 15 minute meeting once per week…a simple, non-tech improvement. Tech is not always the best way to achieve process improvement …see Japan’s JIT system using hand dollies vs. Harley’s fully automated parts system that had rusted parts moving around on a high tech inventory system.

  • Johnny

    The morass of rules, spending limitations and layers of administration make innovation at public schools systems.

    A widespread voucher program would spur competition and innovation across all school. My children currently go to a Catholic school that has very little innovation. But since the public schools are so bad, the Catholic schools are nearly full despite the lack of innovation. Some of the expensive private schools are embracing innovative technology (after making sure it works), but that is two or three schools out of 300 in the county I live in.

  • Thucydides

    Technology is changing education, by simply bypassing the education system.

    Think of the Kahn Academy, or MITx, or the millions of online sites with educational content about history, math, science, language, literature, home repair, gardening, business startups…

    More and more people will educate themselves online in what they find interesting and appealing, and once some sort of consensus on credentials or certification of on line education arrives, then you will see a rush of students moving out of the brick and mortar system and into the on line system.

    While this has the potential to leave the least motivated and disadvantaged behind, in practice it means the few left in the Brick and mortar system can have proportional access to far more resources than ever before, even with a massive downsizing of the brick and mortar educational bubble.

    Brick and mortar will still survive in a very truncated form where interaction or access to lab or shop equipment is important; think of performing arts schools and science and technology magnet schools.

  • Debra

    There already is an excellent online school, My son received an outstanding education through them. He is now attending a charter school in California and it is covering items in high school that he learned in elementary and junior high at Changes, they are a-comin.

  • jack gott

    You’re kidding, right? No mention of VC investors’ quite rational disinclination to fight against a union-dominated industry. Teachers unions commit full-scale-war against any attempt to innovate in the ed market, and VCs are not interested in jumping into a fight. No VC wants picket lines in front of their LP investors headquarters, and their executives homes. Nobody wants teachers screaming at their children from the sidewalk in front of their house. Thus, unions will continue to win, and the only true reform of the ed market will happen after a full-scale collapse.

  • Lee

    Education in America is hobbled by the flawed assumption that the unintelligent can be educated to the point of intellectual competence.

    This is fundamentally false.

    Human beings are not created equally. Some people are smarter than others, and nothing can be done to change this.

    The STEM fields that define our economic present and future are only open to those with the intellectual capacity to function within them. This will not change.

    Our schools are run, or are at least pretended to be run, under the notion that everyone is college material. Unless and until this changes, we will continue to see useless attempts at teaching (or pretending to teach) complex subjects to people who will never have jobs working with those subjects because they are incapable of mastering them, and lamenting the fact that nothing we do seems to work.

    What should we do instead?

    Create multiple programs of study to address the educational needs of multiple tiers of students. Don’t pretend to teach algebra or trig to someone who isn’t going to learn it. Train that person based upon what they are going to be doing in life.

    Of course doing this means that the usual suspects will whine and complain about inequality, but then the inequality is inherent in the differences among human beings, and cannot be changed.

  • gringojay

    Venture capital interventions wouldn’t alter the paradigm of political correct group think that forms children to a “participant” who can get by just being “present”.
    Exceptional youngsters will always be around & thanmfully for us at least some will overcome their
    milleu and acheive.

  • Tom Jones

    Anyone who thinks we need more technology in the classroom hasn’t stepped inside a school recently. Ipads, smart boards and laptops are the norm starting in kindergarten. And no, technology can’t fix bad parenting, poverty, missing dads, etc which are the real causes of student failure.

  • Campesino

    Sell to homeschoolers. That’s about 1.5 million kids out of the 50 million of school age.

  • You’re assuming that fixing K12 is an evolutionary process, rather than a disruptive process. Disruptions to established industries occur adjacent to those industries, not in the industry itself. Free and pay-per-course online courseware is that adjacent industry. As parents discover more and more extracurricular resources for their kids, the public ed system will simply become more and more irrelevant. Note also that disruptions don’t spring forth as fully-featured competitors; they start as niche solutions with one unique, compelling feature, then slowly fill in the feature gaps around their initial offering. The online stuff is markedly inferior to full public school curricula today, but they blow the curriculum away in certain areas. As you glue together enough of those point solutions to particular educational problems, full curricula will emerge. That’s the point where boards of ed stop being recto-cranially inverted and start scrambling to remain relevant.

    You’re correct that ROI on ed software isn’t wonderful from a venture capital standpoint, but this is an area ripe for open software and open courseware, where prestige acts as a proxy for profit. (And, of course, prestige **is** profit, since developing a reputation in the open world translates directly into marketability in the regular biz world.) The nice thing about the open approach is that it’s remarkably good at pulling in best-of-breed solutions and reinforcing them. The open folks don’t have to defend their product turf the same way that for-profits do, so they can adapt much quicker.

    I agree that adoption by boards of ed is a major impediment to anything revolutionary, but that is ultimately because they control certification. That will remain true in K12 right up until they acknowledge the disruption, but the only thing required to break down the higher ed certification system is for employers to develop industry-based certifications and courseware developers will flock to them. You already see this happening a bit with big tech companies like Microsoft and Cisco, where they’ve rolled out curricula to train not just their own developers but an entire workforce oriented around use of their product suites. It’s only a small jump from there to the point where each industry can specify exactly what skills a prospective employee needs to have. Once that happens, it’s easy for courseware developers to work with the industries to address the certification requirements, and a steady stream of uniquely qualified applicants is guaranteed.

  • LB

    If you want improvement get rid of factory education. We need venture capitalists who are willing to take the long term risk to fundamentally change the education system AND the mentality of how education ought to be.
    George Tobin is right when he says “..predictable mediocrity..” Educators are not in the business of cultivating your little Einstein’s potential. Actually, they are more fully dedicated to keeping Johnny from slipping through the cracks and providing an adequate education for everyone else. And don’t let them tell you differently; most everyone in the U.S. has been through the public school system and a majority will say they received an adequate education. I want better.
    Remove the idea of government as the first/only solution and remove the idea of the factory model. We need a singularity moment in education.

  • Duncan Frissell

    The technology of learning is already there. The Net and YouTube and E-books I can grab Smith’s Anglo-Saxon grammar in seconds and be studying Anglo-Saxon. Obviously, children need the basic tools of leaning before they can become autodidacts but those tools are reading and writing and basic use of the Nets and search engines and curriculum lists. Once they have the Trivium, they can easily self educate with existing net tools.

  • gsarcs

    Amen Lee! That needed to be said. The teacher can only do what they can do.

    I’m currently teaching and and within sight of retirement. After 27 years of teaching (elementary to college level) I have concluded that the worst teachers are usually the first to glom onto the latest “new thing.” They particularly love the bells and whistles than can accompany technology as it entertains the students and masks their inability to do a good job of teaching.
    Study after study has concluded that the most significant factor in student success is the teacher. The success of technology in the classroom will always be determined by the quality of the teacher. I can’t see any way around this.

  • Andy Freeman

    > If you have a whole bunch of dysfunctional private sector education experiments that don’t pan out, you end up with a bunch of kids with a messed-up education. You can’t simply say, “Oh, sorry, our mistake”.

    We’ve had far more disfunctional public sector education experiments that didn’t work out.

    Yet, for some reason, the generations of kids that have a messed-up education don’t get a “sorry, our mistake”.

    Instead, we get “circle the wagons” by the public education mafia.

  • KWood

    My kids do Kumon (strictly paper and pencils) at home and are well on their way with the 3 R’s from that alone. Everything else is supplemental.

    I agree with those who say that the best market for this is the home study / home schoolers. This group is and will continue to grow exponentially. Stop looking for a sure, established thing to invest in and instead help CREATE the market you are looking for. Get in on the ground floor now.

    Kumon is a great example of how this doesn’t have to be an iPad or PC application. It’s okay to think outside of the Beige Box, too!

    That said, surely someone, somewhere, can do better than the re-hashed Reader Rabbit [stuff] that’s out there.

    I and others are hungry and willing to pay for innovative and thoughtful approaches to study and learning at all levels. I’ve been learning Japanese myself with the help of Pimsleur audio courses as one resource among several, but I can easily say it’s the most important resource and the only one I do each day, day in and day out. It’s extremely well thought out, well executed and leaves little or no question as to where to go next.

    I’m not saying everything should be like this, but it’s a great example of an innovative and very carefully crafted approach. At $300 for the course on CD’s or tapes, I never even considered buying it, however, but now that I can get each level as an mp3 download, I’m happy to pay and support them.

    Venture capitalists who want to make some money have to check Google to see how many people are searching for ways to learn. There’s gold in them thar hills! Don’t get stuck in the glue of trying to work with or move the lame and syphallitic elephant that is Public Education.

  • Dave

    Certainly good thoughts, but you’re dealing with the twin issues of government bureaucracy and human greed. Yes, it’s a good idea to let teachers “pull the trigger” on those small-scale purchases–until that teacher figures out how to pull the trigger on a lot more, and then you have a Dallas ISD-sized scandal with millions of dollars unaccounted for and an administrator shrugging his shoulders and saying “Wha’happen?” So you put controls in place to create more accountability…and create a huge, ungainly bureaucracy that does anything it can to make accessing the money you need for your classroom difficult, staffed by secretaries that have little real power but love nothing more than exercising their minimal authority to the fullest possible extent. I work for a company that does significant business within school districts, and getting POs out of them or sometimes even getting them to honor the PO after delivery, just depends on the district. I don’t blame VCs for staying clear of the mess that is the public school system.

  • M. Smith

    Public education has a nice ring to it because most of us want for free what we haven’t earned. The “public” (everyone and noone at the same time) will pay for it all. Even the childless couple next door helps out whether they want to or not. Our job is to show up with our kids if we have them and free education is ours.

    Our kid shows up, an appropriately certified teacher is provided by others, the school district gets their money, and who’s to complain? Who’s to listen if we did? Would our portion of the “public’s” educational money be returned if we raised a stink?

    The “system” has given us what we said we collectively wanted: Specialists and special programs no matter our individual abilities to pay or learn. Subsidized meals. Credentialed teachers. Computers. Internet. Handicapped access. Counseling. “We’ll handle it all for you”.

    “What about Quality?”, you say.

    To which they might reply, “Well, quality is a subjective term and we would rather just say that we follow the necessary mandated programs, policies, and procedures designed to ensure that legal norms are being adhered to. “If you’d just send some more money and give us a little more power, we could do more”.

    This is not a technology problem. It will take parents paying for their child’s education and selecting for the job those who can do it to their satisfaction.

  • Stan

    “The obsession with digital classrooms goes back to president Bill Clinton, who called for more computers in the schools in 1997. After 15 years of failure, the Barack Obama administration’s National Education Technology Plan ”calls for applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning.

    The American elite, to be sure, does not subject its own offspring to this kind of digital treatment. New York City’s most exclusive private schools, the ones with an acceptance rate lower than Ivy League colleges, do things the old fashioned way. Brearley School, sometimes considered the best of the private schools for girls, requires every student to learn an instrument and play in the orchestra (the only other New York school with this requirement is the Rudolf Steiner School). The Dalton School teaches chess to every student. Acoustic instruments, classical music, and ancient games with wooden pieces teach concentration span.

    In Silicon Valley, Times reporter Matt Richtel observed in an October 22 feature, many of the Silicon Valley types who make weapons of mass dementia send their own kids to a school that bans computers until the 9th grade:

    The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home. Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix…”

    Read on: “How America made its children crazy”

  • Kistian

    This article skirts around the solution, but doesn’t explicitly say it: get the government out of education!

    All the problems listed are ones of intransigent bureaucracy, school boards, unions, teachers, etc. Let schools actually compete for students based on quality and cost, and cater to people based on their individual desires. And then watch the VCs flock to the industry! If you freed up all these resources parents are paying, there could be a hundred Khan Academies sprouting up, teaching kids effectively and cheaply.

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