Whereas once people believed that education would change the world, now people across the political spectrum tend to be skeptical. Academic performance remains stagnant despite a threefold increase in per pupil spending over the past forty years. We’ve tried thousands of new methods, pedagogies, textbooks, software, testing regimes, teacher training programs, etc. within the existing constraints without progress. Diverse thinkers (Plato, Rousseau, Kant, Jefferson, Dewey, etc.) in the western tradition believed that education could be transformative. The current zeitgeist is that we’ve reached the limits of what education can achieve. Were the earlier dreams of philosophers, humanists, and educators simply wrong about the potential of education?
By contrast, technological innovation over since the Enlightenment has been stunning: In 1870 the cost of cotton clothing was one percent of what it was in 1770. The cost of computing power is one ten-billionth (1/10,000,000,000) of what it was in 1950. Items that are routinely dumped at Goodwill in the U.S. today, such as books, clothing, plates, utensils, tools, toys, etc. were only available to elites in 1800.
Perhaps the field of human development is unlike technological development. Perhaps it is impossible for significant innovations to take place in human development. Indeed, because of the stagnation in “education,” most observers believe that significant improvements in educational performance are not possible.
Here I will present an educational innovator’s case that:
- Significant improvements in educational performance are possible.
- Government control over K-12 education, teacher training, and occupational licensing prevents innovations from being developed. Government control also prevents improvements from scaling.
- With more freedom, we will gradually see significant improvements in human development. As with technological innovations, these will become affordably available to all.
- Existing school choice legislation, such as charter schools, while positive, are not adequate to release these innovative forces in education.
To understand the potential of innovation, we must first understand how government domination of education acts as a dominant operating system that prevents important innovations from scaling.
State-managed K-12 education is the norm around the world. In a long process that began in Prussia in the 18th century, governments have increasingly taken a dominant role in K-12 education. By the 1930s, a majority of children ages 6-17 in the U.S. were forced to attend government-managed schools, staffed by government certified teachers. Government domination of K-12 education is a feature of society in nations around the world.
One of the early justifications for school choice in the U.S., from Milton Friedman (1950) through Chubb and Moe (1990) was that it would result in greater educational innovation. After twenty years of the charter school movement, one of the most striking features of school choice is the relative absence of innovation. Other observers have noted that entirely private education is not particularly innovative either. Should we conclude that school choice will not, in fact, result in significant innovations that will benefit the poor?
In order to understand the paucity of innovation in charter and private education, we need to explain the ways in which the existing system acts as a dominant standard. The default educational system consists of:
A. Grade-level curricula organized by discipline (math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.) along with textbooks, state standards, and high stakes tests aligned with these standards.
B. State-licensed personnel who are authorized to play specific roles in this system (pre-school teacher, middle school mathematics teacher, high school language arts teacher, principal, etc.)
This system, with a few small variations, is legally required in all public and charter schools in the U.S. In some states elements of this system are also required of private schools. In most countries other than the U.S. state-mandated curricula are required in both public and private schools. For this reason, and to simplify exposition, I’ll focus on U.S. education. It is worth noting, however, that most school choice experiments outside the U.S., such as that of Sweden, Holland, and New Zealand were implemented within the boundaries of national curriculum and teacher certification requirements: a bit of glasnost, but not quite a free market.
Even in U.S. states where private education is relatively unregulated (only minimal health and safety standards), the foregoing system acts as a dominant operating system that constrains innovation. Microsoft’s “monopoly” in the field of computer operating systems in the 1990s was neither as extensive nor was it government subsidized and legislatively enforced the way that government educational monopolies have been. Apple and Linux faced a level playing field vis-a-vis Microsoft in the 1990s in comparison to the challenges faced by small private schools outside the government’s dominant OS.
A private school attempting to provide an education outside the bounds of the standard operating system must build everything from the ground up: create its own curricula, educational materials, evaluation systems, strategies for college admissions, and most importantly, its own teacher training system. Therefore, most private schools use standard components, so to speak, rather than innovate.
Despite these constraints, private schools have been responsible for a few key innovations, including the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate systems. These are arguably the most important innovations that have grown to scale in the past fifty years. Charter schools have also innovated to a limited extent, within the boundaries of the standard, with KIPP Academies being the best known.
Consider the fact that just four companies – Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson – produce 96% of standardized tests given at the state level. Hitherto almost all discussions of “school choice” have taken place within the boundaries defined by these corporations. But why should we accept those boundaries as the definitive standards for human capital development for all American children?
In the existing system of high-stakes testing, it is a high risk move for any educator to devote resources to such approaches given the fact that students might score worse on high stakes tests (and even most private school parents base their judgments of academic excellence on conventional high stakes testing). Despite a few promising trials here and there, scaling such systems is almost impossible in the face of the dominant operating system.
What about the development of intellectual skills for which there are no widely recognizable metrics, such as programming or design? Programming and design abilities are arguably two of the most important 21st century “New Economy” skill sets – yet they are almost entirely absent from the K-12 curriculum. High profile individuals have promoted such programs in schools – most famously Seymour Papert’s Logo programming, which was deployed as a pedagogy of creativity. More recently there has been a movement with leading figures in the world of design promoting more design thinking in schools (see here and Luma Institute). But after promoting creative problem solving through Logo programming for decades, Papert wrote “Why School Reform Is Impossible.” In essence, Papert discovered, as the promoters of design thinking will discover, that it is impossible to introduce high-quality, large-scale reforms into a system in which all of the incentives continue to redirect educators to prepare students for conventional tests in (mostly) conventional ways.
The situation is much worse for attempts to scale the high-quality development of non-academic abilities: moral, social, relationship, spiritual, aesthetic, etc. qualities cannot be brought to scale in conventional education because the existing incentive structure does not reward educators who systematically develop them. (And they can all be developed: consider extracurricular and adult systems for the transmission of athletic ability, musical ability, “personal growth” systems, yoga and meditation, manners and decorum, etc.) Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that 10,000 hours of practice are required to achieve world-class abilities applies in diverse skill domains, including the foregoing.
What if the most important innovations to help the poor required the creation of educational programs outside the dominant standard?