I have spent 19 years of my life in education. I spent 13 years as a student in K-12, I spent four years working on higher ed issues and as a University of Wisconsin student, and I spent the past two years as a Teach For America teacher in an urban magnet school in St. Louis. This fall, I will begin another three-year stint in higher ed as a law student at New York University School of Law.
Since 4th grade, I have been aware of a befuddling contradiction that plagues the education industry: our education system is intended to prepare students for success in the future world, yet its structures, institutions and models seem to lag at least a half-decade behind the current day.
Examples of this behind-the-times phenomenon are numerous:
- teaching keyboarding to middle school children who have been on computers and texting since early elementary school while not instructing students how to use the most important piece of computing technology – Microsoft Word – until after they arrive in high school;
- pencil&paper homework when online resources/turn-in technology exists nearly ubiquitously – especially in middle and upper-income areas;
- policies that prohibit online interactions between teachers and students (social media as a key example), while every other business circle flocks as quickly as possible to integrate features where people already spend their time;
- policies prohibiting cell phones in buildings when there is a flourishing market of education-related apps
- Sticking to early 2000s-style grading & data programs which are clunky in design and functionality despite the existence of user-friendly & intuitive free programs
And these are merely a handful of examples from my two years of teaching.
Why is education seemingly always behind?
Joel Klein, former Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, penned a compelling article in The Atlantic today which perfectly captures my feelings on the subject, identifying aversion to private sector involvement in education as a major contributor to this delay.
Given the costly chasm between the educational performance of U.S. students and those in other countries—and the shameful gap between white students and their black and Latino counterparts here at home—you’d think school improvement would be an all-hands-on-deck imperative in which the best minds in the public, private, and philanthropic sectors came together to lift our children’s prospects.
Yet such pragmatic problem-solving is threatened today by critics who condemn any private involvement in schools as a matter of “privatization,” “profiteering,” or worse.
Misguided fear of private sector involvement in public spheres unfortunately pervades the conversation of reform at all levels. We need not look further than the debate over the New Badger Partnership at the University of Wisconsin to see the role played by anti-privatization rhetoric in stifling innovation and reform.
The current generation of private sector innovators want to challenge traditional ways of doing things in schools. They see a system that’s failing to equip America’s children with the skills to compete in a global age, and they believe passionately that innovative products and approaches could help the country do better.
The combination of fear of private sector and education’s slow-to-adopt new ideas mantra collide to produce one of the fundamental issues facing firms who might want to innovate in the education sector: upfront investment costs in R & D are high when companies cannot work directly with the consumer.
As this investment ramps up, public and private sector leaders need to work together to make school-related R & D as effective as possible. Serious barriers still exist. Before making purchasing decisions, for example, schools and districts typically demand “proof” that new products or services will be efficacious. Traditionally, such evidence has been collected through randomized, controlled trials that take years to complete.
The timeframes governing education research are completely out of sync with the pace of technological change. If we don’t find sensible ways to square this R & D circle, schools will inevitably lag behind.
The solution is to link future users (teachers and students) to companies at the design stages.
We need to close the gap between developer and user so that products are not designed in a vacuum. Done right, such collaboration will shorten R & D cycles, lower costs, and offer safe, secure ways for educators to shape the next generation of pathbreaking ideas.
In the 21st century, public schools need the kind of innovation that private firms like Google, Twitter, and Apple exemplify.
The current system is broken, and throughout history the private sector has yielded advancements that have far outpaced the public sector in nearly all spheres of life. Private-public partnerships are the way of the future and provide an opportunity to realign our education system for the 21st century. Let’s give these companies a chance to innovate. The results can’t get worse than the status quo.