The Solution for Education is Simple. Implementation is not.

For most of my lifetime, I recall hearing through political coverage in the media that the educational system in the United States is broken.  Schools within poor socio-economic geographies are failing to meet the standards.  The standards themselves do not adequately cover the base of knowledge commensurate with a 21st century education.  Teachers are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated.  Students do not have access to the tools necessary to learn.  The school systems cannot afford to provide the facilities and resources to offer a balanced educational experience. And the criticisms go on and on….

And then there are the proposed solutions.  On one hand, you have democrat politicians who want to double down on public schools.  After all, increasing the scale of public schools enables the districts to create larger schools and spread the fixed costs across a larger base of students.   In the long run, this ends up creating a genericized experience for students in a government oligopoly for education services.  On the other hand are the republicans with their school of choice and voucher based options.   After all, what is better than to create a market for educational services, where tax payers (aka the consumers), can choose the best school for their children. This has opened up a whole host of new options including for profit schools, charter schools, and private school subsidies for the well to do.  While this is great in concept, it truly undermines the public school system, potentially depriving them of the necessary student body to fund and finance their fixed costs.  After all public schools rely on “students in classrooms”.  For the last decade, we have gone around and around on the voucher / charter school vs. public school debate, and in this process nothing has truly changed.  American students continue to fall behind in STEM related professions relative to the rest of the world.

Before we dig into some of the solutions, I think we should frame a few questions to answer to understand the root of the problem instead of focusing on the symptoms.

What are some of the challenges we need to solve?

  1. Education outcomes are highly dependent on your socio-economic background
  2. Students learn at different paces
  3. Students have varying levels of capacity to learn
  4. Education problems are not only financial problems
  5. Teachers are undercompensated for their contributions
  6. School related violent incidents continue to occur (increasing pace or otherwise)
  7. Incentives are not effectively aligned with outcomes for students, teachers, and administrators

When looking at the list of main issues, it is clear that the whole public, private, charter, voucher conversation is really not going to address any of these problems.  Basically by giving people options, they will ultimately re-assimilate in a different setting with mostly the same outcomes – the only difference being that those schools are likely to be selectively less diverse.  Therefore, logical objectives should include the following:

  1. Educational classroom settings should be focused on instruction and not lecturing
  2. Education must be technology enabled to adapt content and materials to students
  3. Students must be able to proceed through their educational experience at their own pace
  4. Educational standards must be universal in nature
  5. Educational experience must be the same regardless of socioeconomic background
  6. Incentives for students, parents, teachers, and administrators must be in alignment (and focused on outcomes)
  7. Education environments must be safe places to share ideas (whether you agree with them or not), represent personal authenticity and creativity, and free of violence.

What exactly am I proposing?

As you may note, I have placed a lot of emphasis on the educational experience. I believe this experience starts at home, segues into transportation to and from school, continues into the class room, into a nutrition based lunch, into physical activity and fitness, and into safe social environment that encourages exploration of ideas and concepts.  No proper education system in the 21st century is complete without technology enablement.  The vast number of resources available on the internet to shape and design a curriculum, educational content and delivery, and course pacing are astronomical.  And on a per student basis, these systems are incredibly cost effective.  One of my favorite examples in particular are the resources available on Khan Academy or academic earth.  By leveraging these scalable technology tools, education systems are able to increase the number of students guided and advised per teacher, reduce the overall classroom size and footprint, and increase the overall investment in salaries per teacher.  Additionally, by aligning students and teachers around advancing intellectual capacity, teachers then can then be incentivized further to expand their educational base and earn more by progressing students and assisting students with overcoming their conceptual challenges.  The tools and the resources are there; however, the barriers are not in educational capabilities in resources but in the bureaucratic process of transforming education.  Additionally, to keep environments safe, incentives for students should be drawn around collaboration, team building, and complex problem solving along with thinking through the potential role that firearms have in schools.  In regards to firearms in schools,   the level of accountability to keep a school environment safe should fall on the same people or person who is ultimately responsible for the outcomes of the school – the principal.  In my opinion, principles and vice principals should be trained to use a firearm and have several lockbox sites throughout the school where they are able to access a firearm in the case of an attack on the school.  Much like a ship captain, someone must be prepared to defend children in case of an emergency.  I am not particularly fond of the concept of unmitigated or uncontrolled access to firearms – this could potentially lead to escalation of issues which do not require weapons.  Nonetheless, I think my school proposal for the future solves many of the issues of the future. And note that I did not mention anything about private or public or charter schools.  Quite frankly. It doesn’t really matter.

Why is execution of my solution such a big challenge?

Like all controversial topics, education reform is one of those things that is highly politicized.  On the left side of the aisle, you have significant constituencies of unionized teachers who have professional incentives aligned with the maintenance of the status quo.  The status quo being tenure and education based compensation, minimal accountability for student outcomes, and general public institutional norms.  On the right side of the aisle, you have a free markets philosophy which believes the best way to drive outcomes is through economic incentives.  This may be the case, but realistically the incentives are drawn around increasing the leverage per teacher, hitting and exceeding state mandated targets by any means possible, and reducing cost.  These market driven incentives are quite in conflict with the notion of achieving a universal educational experience and quite frankly the verdict is out in regards to whether these institutions “add value”.  Either way, both sides have principally vested interests in keeping things the way they are without change “maintaining the status quo”.  They both view the educational experience as a primarily financial decision working within the same parameters they always have.   There are some really technology enabled alternatives which could really improve the educational experience for all students regardless of socioeconomic background, unfortunately, this would require politicians to think different, think dynamically, and understand individual student needs.  So where should we start…

 Rethink the role of the teacher and the classroom

–        Shorten instructor time by half (use for knowledge application)

–        Leverage computer based learning for labs / content consumption

–        Leverage home for follow up, deep dive, and problem solving

Rethink the complete learner experience

–        Point of entry to point of dismissal

–        Lifestyle and living (health and fitness)

–        Self-paced learning, progression, and peer groups

Rethink educational safety

–        Safety of ideas and perspectives

–        Non-intrusive physical safety

–        Conflict avoidance / mitigation

Rethink accountability through incentives

–        Alignment of student, teacher, and administrator outcomes

–        Protection of educational experience and safety

–        Culture of continuous education

Once these priorities have been planned and laid, administrators should then focus on deciding the best platform for driving the agenda – whether that can best be promoted with public institutions, private institutions, or both.  Additionally, the method of payment, either through vouchers or direct government funding, really does not matter all that much once you have defined the core of the educational system.  My only recommendation would be to choose the approach that best aligns with the solution.   This type of transformation could take decades to accomplish, so in my opinion it is probably best to get started on this…..yesterday!

For those exploring several of the concepts identified herein in more detail, please feel free to visit the following links for additional perspective.

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