The Future of Education Is Strong

If you want to know what the future of education should look like, visit New Technology High School in Napa, California. If you want to know how to get ahead of the curve today, start doing what they're doing.

NTHS is a public high school that integrates technology throughout everything they do. That certainly makes this school special, but that's just the beginning. What's really amazing is how NTHS blends technology with project-based learning. It is the signature of everything they do. NTHS is led by an inspiring principal, Michelle Spencer, who has built a dynamic team of teachers around their students. I would hire the students I met there right out of high school. That's how good and how ready they are. Our future is so bright because of theirs.

When you poll Americans though, you get a different picture of our future. Gallup finds that confidence in U.S. public schools is at an all-time low of 29 percent in 2012, far from its high of 58 percent in 1973. Americans also question the value of a college degree, with a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll finding that 54 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat agree that college graduates are ready for work.

America has become far too negative about its education system. Yes, there are big problems with big consequences. But there are also many things that are right about our schools, teachers, and students -- and that's where the solutions lie.

Education may be the most important topic of conversation in America. The economy might dominate the headlines, but when Americans talk at the dinner table, the conversation often turns to education. We inextricably link education with economic success and the American dream.

But the conversation we're having about education today is different from the one we have had historically. In the past, we viewed U.S. schools and colleges as the best in the world -- lauding their strengths. By many measures, they were the best and continue to be. But now the conversation focuses more on the U.S. education system's failings and weaknesses. We criticize teachers. We look for deficits in students. We complain about the resources we don't have. In many ways, we are fixated on fixing the problems in education. And that is the problem.

It's gotten so bad that we have popularized a term for what we're doing right now, calling it an "education reform movement." Reform may be one of the least inspiring and least motivating words in the English language. And we've attached it to our education system.

Gallup has spent decades studying the behaviors of the most successful Americans. Among our biggest findings is this: No one ever became successful trying to fix his or her weaknesses. In fact, successful people do the exact opposite; they spend their time building their strengths, trying to become great where they are already good.

In the PDK/Gallup poll, only 1 percent of Americans give the country's public schools a grade of A. But when we ask public school parents to grade the school their oldest child attends, 37 percent give it an A. This disparity has amazingly helpful and hopeful implications. When we know our schools and our teachers, we like them because we are able to see all that is good about them. When we think about education more generally, we tend to focus on what we've heard about what's wrong.

We need to spend every moment of our time focusing on -- and replicating -- what makes our schools and colleges great. For example, the best teachers are great at seeing each and every student as unique, getting to know him or her, and caring about what makes each learner tick. They build relationships with their students and their students' families and communities. Nothing about standardized testing, for example, enables that. And yet, all of our focus on fixing education in the U.S. today revolves around standardized testing and trying to fill students' knowledge deficits.

More Americans think No Child Left Behind has made public school education worse (29 percent) than think it has made education better (16 percent), and they're right. There's no incentive for getting to know each student and his or her unique talents and strengths. There's only incentive to get as many of them as possible to an arbitrary score on a knowledge-based exam. If students are not good at math, we crush them with extra math homework. What educators need to do is figure out what students are good at and what they love, then immerse them in that passion -- what Sir Ken Robinson refers to as "The Element." Pass a test about what you know or don't know? That's necessary, but it's also horribly insufficient. Figure out what students' and teachers' innate talents are and empower them to use them every day? That will light up America.

That's what Michelle Spencer and NTHS are doing. When you walk into the school, you can feel the students' hope, engagement, and wellbeing bursting out of the place. The teachers have created inspiring projects that students work in teams to tackle together -- all the while using technology to support their work. Each student has a personal computing device -- from new Macbook Airs to hand-me-downs from parents to rented netbooks. Every teacher and student in the building has taken the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment. They have all discovered their strengths. And they are using those strengths to create well-rounded student teams and groups for their project-based learning. Gallup knows that great leaders are not well-rounded. But their teams are. And the student-teacher teams at NTHS are soaring.

We need to get the words standardized, reform, and average out of our education lexicon. The average American is far from average. We each have a unique set of talents. America is strong in more than 311 million ways. Let's not try to fix weaknesses. We are allowing weaknesses to get in the way of our strengths. The second we start thinking of America as a strengths-based nation is the second we start winning again.