Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Call for Disruption in Education

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on November 4, 2006.

S.O.S. (Save Our Schools)
November 4, 2005; Page A14

What if Ford announced tomorrow that it was eliminating all research and development in order to add $7.4 billion to its annual bottom line? Readers of these pages would instantly recognize the absurdity of such an action because only through R&D can a company maintain its competitiveness and value. That an organization with more than twice the annual revenues of Ford has virtually no R&D budget will surely be surprising. But R&D was not stopped. Rather R&D was never seriously begun.

The entity with virtually no R&D? American public education. The revenue for K-12 schooling in the U.S. is around $400 billion per year. Our spending on K-12 education in just two school days equals the entire revenue of an entry-level Fortune 500 company. Yet despite spending so much to operate our schools, our investment in advancing their design and updating their systems is negligible. Why?

It was not intentional. It largely just happened -- an artifact of the historical development of public schools. As cities and towns sprang up, school systems were built to serve them, which resulted in one of the most fragmented sectors imaginable. The U.S. has around 15,000 school systems, with only six schools in the average district. This immense fragmentation means that virtually all of our school systems lack the scale to conduct any meaningful R&D. Ask any school superintendent about the district's R&D budget. He or she will laugh -- or appear puzzled.

If school systems were businesses, only three would have scale sufficient to be included in the Fortune 500 -- and those three would be a long way from the top of the list. Even the few large-scale districts find that pressing operational issues prevent their conducting significant research and development.

This seems like a perfect example of where the federal government could and should step in to fill a breach. Certainly it has the required scale. Certainly such involvement seems appropriate, if the prerequisite for federal action is the inability of local or state entities to act. Federal engagement in innovation in other categories critical to our national well-being provides ample precedent. Consider the $27 billion of R&D money pumped into the National Institutes of Health every year to help bring our citizens one of the finest health-care systems on the globe. How about the $9 billion that went into just one Department of Defense project: the design and development of the Joint Strike Fighter?

So is our federal government contributing to the future of our children by investing in school design on a similar scale? I am sorry to report that it is not. Within the Department of Education is a small entity called the Institute of Education Science that is charged with conducting educational research activities. Unfortunately, the part of its annual appropriation devoted to education research is $260 million: 1% of annual federal spending on health-care research. If the federal government were to spend on education research an amount pro rata to its investment in health-care research, the IES would be receiving 30 times its current funding -- and we would have much better schools to show for it.

So where are our national policy makers? Where are the Bell Labs, Xerox Research Parks, Ford Test Tracks, Strategic Defense Initiatives and NASAs of education? Why is America so slow to arrive at the inevitable conclusion that schools are a national security priority -- and that federal funding of R&D investment in them would serve as, shall we say, Homeland Offense?

Perhaps it's the longstanding view that our schools should be locally governed. But one can adhere to the concept of local control of schools, as I do, and still support national investment in their improvement. Our inaction is something beyond the local-control bias. We are suffering from a decades-long national failure of imagination as to what our schools could become. After 15 years of up-close involvement with public education, I have heard the same refrain all too often: "We know what to do to improve schools. Our problems are just a failure of execution." I don't buy that. I believe that our current school "design" is suffering from educational "metal fatigue," and that we must intentionally seek -- and invest in -- a fundamentally new gestalt.

So what might schools of the future be like? Although our vision may be obscured by our attendance at "old design" schools for most of our formative years, educational visionaries can see, through the mist, the coastlines of these new schools. They see schools in which students are much more engaged in their "job" of learning; schools where teachers are paid like other professionals; schools that are hybrids between our current brick-and-mortar model and home-schooling techniques; schools where the assets of our magical digital age are fully unleashed, not to replace teachers, but rather to work in seamless combination with them. These designers know we can move our schools -- and our educational results -- to another level, just as we moved from the candle to the light bulb, from the prop plane to the jet.

For this to happen quickly and well, however, our national political leadership must fund a whole new level of educational innovation. Great new schools do not just happen. As with every business innovation, they must be thoughtfully developed and designed -- and that takes real resources that are simply not available to local school systems.

Mr. Whittle, author of "Crash Course -- Imagining A Better Future for Public Education" (Riverhead, 2005), is founder and CEO of Edison Schools, the largest private partner of public schools.


Herb O'Toole said...

First you must change the teachers by changing the way in which they are trained. To do that, you must totally reform teacher education and suffer the wrath of the Professional Teacher Class.

Every day there are more modern automobiles on the world's roads and fewer people who understand how they work. At a modern dealership, repair is attempted by substitution and after the requisite number of plastic-encased components have been replaced, the vehicle is declared fixed and a bill is submitted. One on those items may have been needed but the rest?

This is not a stupidity issue. It is a methodological deficiency because the person doing the repair did not think the same way as the design engineer responsible for the car build.

For a start, lets drop poetry, art appreciation and other mumbly-speak courses from our schools and require that students pass math, chemistry and basic electronics (biology or "health" might not be a bad equirement also).

The bottom line is that we need to teach what is necessary now and hope that it is a valid foundation for the future. What our teachers learned in normal school does not cut it.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the true issue in education R&D is not that it doesn't exist. It is actually quite substantial, with every college of education in the country offering the Ph.D. or Ed.D degree, which are research degrees. The faculties at the schools of education reach tenure based on research, just like the faculty in the chemistry department. The problem is that the research is too often - even usually - ill founded. The uncontrolled or unidentified variables in the experiments in education frequently outweigh the controlled variables. The result, predictably, can be chaos. I recently read an article in a reputable education research journal that began (I paraphrase, because I don't want to look up the quote) "After seventy years of research, recent studies tend to indicate that the quality of facilities may have an impact on the success of instruction." Tend to indicate a possible impact? After 70 years? And this got published? I submit that far too much education research is statistically invalid on its face, and that the situation is hopeless. We should concentrate on rewarding successful teachers instead of attempting to fix research. Best practices in teaching are as elusive as best practices in sales, because they vary with each individual teacher's personality and the characteristics of the particular students, not to mention the subject. Creativity in teaching is the most important ingredient.