US Public Ed Like GM in the 80s

My Pontiac Bonneville was big and fast. In 1984 I interrupted a string of European and Japanese cars to give GM a try. After the Iranian hostage crisis buying a Pontiac felt patriotic. The experiment was short lived. I missed the German driving and dealer experience. With the first sign of trouble, I sold the car and will likely never buy an American car again.

A lot of upper middle class parents feel the same way about US public education -- they left and they're never coming back. Lower income families usually don't have that choice -- they're stuck with a neighborhood public school that you and I wouldn't send our kids to. Public education is GM in the 1980s -- it's dying and doesn't know it.

You may think your local school is ok, but I spent the week in Newark, Bed-Stuy and Los Angeles. We have an urban school crisis. And, if you read Tony Wagner's new book, The Global Achievement Gap, you'll understand that most suburban schools aren't preparing kids for the future they'll inherit.

The US won't spend or reform its way to high and equitable educational attainment. The basic model of age cohorts slogging through print-based content with ability tracking (i.e., race and income tracking) is obsolete, expensive and unjust.

The confluence of nearly ubiquitous broadband, cheap access devices and powerful application platforms have transformed nearly every sector of society except learning. The lack of public and private investment in research and development is a function of a locally controlled inefficient public delivery system. We now have the potential for students worldwide to learn more, faster, and cheaper. And innovation is the key.

Specific problems that an aggressive innovation agenda will address include:

• Personalization: why can Apple suggest iTunes to your teen but we're not smarter about suggesting how to learn physics? We won't dramatically change learning productivity until we dramatically personalize learning.

• Smart tests: key to personalizing learning is adaptive testing incorporated into learning activities. Computer games do it, schools should too.

• Motivation: some families, neighborhoods (and nations) lack the strong cultural press that encourages some students to endure challenging (and boring) content. A sophisticated approach to determining learning styles and motivational attributes has the potential to improve persistence and achievement. We need to get better and finding the 'hook' that will motivate students to do difficult work.

• Teacher gap: Increasing graduation requirements are exacerbating the shortage of highly qualified math and science teachers. Engaging content and distance learning have the potential to fill the gap.

• Special needs: while the US spends more than a fifth of its education budget on special needs populations, we don't actually have very effective means of diagnosing and treating learning disabilities. New assessment and learning tools have the potential to address these needs in a far more productive way.

In short, innovative learning tools and formats have the potential to help students worldwide gain access to learning and, as a result, a productive life.

Most states and foundations are trying to improve system components. It's like replacing a fuel pump on a '57 Chevy -- it will run better, but it's not what you need. This is a design problem. The challenge is inventing (and investing in) the future of learning. This is a task for entrepreneurs and the risk takers that support them. We need to create room for them to get to work, reduce some of the barriers, and provide a little support.

If our public school system is GM in the 80s, the question is, what are we going to do about it? Innovation will happen with or without the US public schools. We're already seeing the development of a new learning ecosystem with Wikipedia and open content, virtual charter schools, peer-to-peer learning sites, adaptive learning games, and online language learning. Do we ride the system we have into bankruptcy or invent better ways to learn? Ask your superintendent or next governor, "Are we fixing the Chevy or inventing the future?"