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Is Better Education Finally Possible?

IT-enabled innovation has long passed education by, but cost pressures may finally change that.

Over time, innovation is what makes most human endeavors better and more productive, and over the past 50 years the big changes have largely been enabled by information technologies. That's clearly true for most medical procedures, many police investigations,certainly the biological sciences and computing itself.

But, what about education? It has been the prototypical victim of Baumol's "cost disease," where productivity lags because the process doesn't yield to new technologies. As a result, while a Civil War doctor entering a hospital today wouldn't know where to begin, the Civil War teacher would be rather at home in most of today's classrooms. Despite mind-boggling growth in computer capabilities, teachers remain the "sage on the stage," not "the guide on the side."

We're on the cusp of breakthrough educational reconfigurations, however. We're dissatisfied with our overall educational performance; we can't remain a leading society when our students score lower on globally administered tests than 30 or so other nations. Regardless of whether our public educational institutions want to change, they'll have to. What's different now is that almost all governments are under enormous cost pressures and demographics ensure that these pressures won't go away.

But this pressure can be a positive catalyst for change, and we need to coalesce around a productive way forward. With that in mind, consider the following five-point, technology-enabled plan:

  1. Measure results to learn what works and hold the system accountable. The No Child Left Behind movement gave us a start, with standardized tests for students and publicly reported aggregates for schools. But measurement must now be extended to teacher value-added measures, which offer a much better way to understand what's working and hold teachers properly accountable -- even while adjusting for factors beyond teachers' control. What gets measured gets improved.

  2. Harvest the growing development of intelligent teaching materials. After years of starts and stops, we're on the cusp of generating teaching materials that use computer-assisted interactivity to aid study and learning, and don't just present reading material in electronic form. In the early 1960s, B.F. Skinner was touting "teaching machines" that gave him better feedback on what his students did and did not understand, so he could revise the flow and present the material more effectively. While students, of course, learn from the teacher, much of the mental work involved in learning comes from thinking about teaching materials and interacting with other students.

  3. Deliver more content through virtual classrooms and schools. Internet-delivered education offers enormous economies of customization and scale. Many school boards are finding that they can't afford the course variety they used to offer. Can't budget for Italian next year? How about giving credit for the version offered over the Internet by the statewide virtual high school? As with most disruptive technologies, virtual education won't initially be considered as good as the old model. But, it is a lot less expensive and, over time, it will improve. Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School predicts that in a few years as much as 25 percent of K-12 credits will be delivered through this back-door channel.

  4. Offer academic certification as an independent service. Where is the state university system that will provide a degree to anyone who can pass their tests, regardless of whether the students took their courses at the university? We need more rigorous academic certification to make the economy work better, especially when workers and jobs shift as often as they do today. While clearly not perfect, the SAT and ACT scores provide a much more objective basis for admitting students into colleges than we had before. We need similar measures of performance to build demand for innovative education and to guide job allocation decisions throughout the economy.

  5. Bring practitioners into lifelong learning networks. In a world of complex jobs and careers we need to help students find the mentors and connections they need to gain real-world value from their education. Some schools have long touted their lifelong networks. For example, many think that Harvard classrooms aren't that exciting, but that the Harvard "network" is of enormous value. It is now cost-effective to use computer technologies to bring practitioners into classrooms, with benefit to practitioners as continuing education and to students as a much better window into the real world and careers.
As with the boy who cried wolf, it may be hard for many of us to believe that real education reform is now possible. Opposition from many teachers and their unions will clearly be both an obstacle and a moral challenge. But for many innovations, the third or fourth time has been the charm. Our educational institutions are in pain and a critical mass of pressure and possibility is now at hand.

Success with educational innovation would clearly have a huge impact on parents, school boards, teachers and teacher unions, curriculum developers, employers, and the larger economy and society -- and, of course, the students.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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