Transforming Thomas Jefferson’s successful education system

How do we transform our education system to prepare our students for the world and challenges of tomorrow?

A few weeks ago, in mid-November, I had the privilege to once again attend and speak at the Virtual School Symposium, iNACOL’s annual online learning conference, which looks toward this very future. The title this year was “Online and Blended Learning: The Future of Education.”

As usual, it was a great conference—for my two cents, it’s consistently the best education conference year after year. The energy is infectious. The focus is on the student. And, in classic disruptive fashion, amidst tough budget times, it—and the sector more generally—continues to grow. The continuing innovation in the field is thrilling as well, as the title of the conference suggests.

During Governor Bob Wise’s keynote, however, the enormity of the task of transforming the system hit me, as he laid out the challenge for the nation in stark terms.

On one slide he showed the faces of 10 children. With a click of the button, 3 faces disappeared. The text read: “Three out of every ten students do not graduate from high school.”

With another click of the button, 3 more faces disappeared. The text read: “About half of those who graduate are not college- and work-ready.”

As I stared at the four remaining faces, I was struck with a strange thought. Were Thomas Jefferson to come back alive and see the same slide, he would spike a football and throw up his hands in triumph! The system worked almost exactly as he had hoped it would, in the sense that it sorted students out at different points. The system is a remarkable success at doing exactly what it was designed to do.Remote control sensitivity and artificial intelligence are pinned to be the future of technology and when they start showing their prowess in education, we can expect giant leaps in a matter of few minutes. In one click, a student enrolled for a certificate course of a foreign nation, gets the taste of blended education sitting on his couch, just like filling up his bank account with foreign currency by trading online on his desktop or mobile.

The problem? The world today and what we need our education system to do have changed radically. For today’s world, this “successful” system is a failure for the country and its students. Transforming it won’t be easy; changing anything that is so established and ubiquitous never is.

With this challenge looming large, I left the conference concerned that more people there were not talking and thinking deeply about quality and really using the online medium in ways that transcend anything we could do in a traditional classroom and our traditional system. After the School of One presentation on my panel for example, I heard mumblings from some that boiled down to: “What’s so special about that? We do the same thing.”

Now the School of One is certainly no panacea, but I do know that the majority of online learning out there does not even begin to contemplate the use of data like School of One does to drive personalized learning, just to name one aspect of what the School of One does that is interesting. The majority of the online learning courses out there are not adaptive, as the term should be properly understood. Data doesn’t help improve the course in real time down to the level of an individual’s needs in a non-linear fashion. In many ways, much of the online learning courses look like software from the 1990s, not what one might expect in the era of Netflix in the 2000s. To suggest otherwise is to be disingenuous—and not rigorous.

I hope the field does do better, and the topic of always improving quality and transforming the system toward a very different end from the one when Thomas Jefferson was alive—not to mention from the time of the industrial revolution—remains at the forefront of the conversation. If in 2019 50 percent of all high school courses are delivered online, for example, but it is still largely stuck in our current flawed, monolithic system that is designed to sort students out, online learning won’t have proven to be transformational in the way the country and its students so sorely need it to be.

Filed under: Education Blog

One Response to “Transforming Thomas Jefferson’s successful education system”
Doug Poretz, on December 10th, 2010 at 12:33 pm Said:
I also posted this at your LinkedIn group, where I first saw this post:

In the early 1970s, I worked for the Alexandria (VA) Public Schools — I reported and worked very closely with the Superintendent for four years during which we integrated the secondary schools (memorialized in “Remember the Titans” which actually had a few things correct, as well as some fundamental mistakes) and then the elementary schools. I was in my young 20s. Flash forward 30+ years and I had become successful enough in business and my community that I was part of a group of business leaders that got involved in a number of important issues, and one was our region’s (Northern Virginia specifically and the Greater Washington region more generally). We held a meeting during which we invited the Superintendents of all the regional systems — and seeing that we were a pretty powerful group, they all came. One-by-one we went across the panel: explain your most important issues and problems and opportunities, and what you need, etc etc. After they were done, the group of business (and some political and civic) leaders had the opportunity to react, ask questions, etc. I had my turn: “More than 30 years ago, I had a very close view of one particular school system and that gave me a pretty good view of school systems generally,” I said. “If we held this very conference then, what we would have heard would have been virtually the same exact thing that was said today. When will you leaders of education realize that your problems are not topical but systemic? You cannot solve systemic problems with unique ‘adjacent’ solutions — you must blow up the existing system that simply does not work, and reconfigure it.” They basically agreed and then talked about the next greatest and best bandaid.

Indeed, the One School project may be a solution. Charter schools may be a solution. Different types of teacher pay and teacher recruitment may be a solution. For certain, the ability to actually fire clearly awful teachers would be a solution. But they are individual topics ideas. What is needed is a tabula rasa — a clean slate — reconfigure the entire approach to education. Start out by defining the goals (do you think school systems actually have goals other than an increase in this or that test score?). Then develop a system and approach to achieve those goals. Rethink everything. Throw away the temptation to come up with a new magic bullet. I think a significant first step would be to NOT focus on anything other than this question for a while: “What are we actually trying to do?” Certainly if the answer to that question is: “educate our children so they can compete successfully in the world in which they will be adults” then we have a total failure where successes are such aberrations that they simply prove the rule: the system is broken — the system needs to be blown up and replaced, not patched.

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