Thank you for engaging. In response to my vision for public schools, you and your followers have raised three basic questions: (1) are these schools desirable, (2) are they possible, and (3) how can we get them?
Are these schools desirable?
My first post suggested that teachers should be paid more; freed from standardized testing and administrative chores; and allowed to focus on their students. Students should learn from each other and on their own, using Montessori methods and outdoor activities, in learning communities that span different ages and ability levels. They should eat healthy foods. Both content and pedagogy should be personalized to their needs. I cross-posted this vision on other sites (including Medium and Citizen Ed), and received positive feedback from parents and educators. Given the choice, I’m confident most of America, its teachers, and its students would prefer this vision to the status quo.
You and your audience raised concerns: that by relying upon mobile computing, this vision elevates technology at the expense of humanity; and that competency-based education (CBE) has led to problems in the status quo. You are right to push for clarity in these areas, as many have complained about fuzzy definitions of personalized learning.
That said, it is absurd not to use these new tools. I will give an example to illustrate. When I was in school, I used to bring pockets full of dimes to the library to do research for papers. Compared with the skills that I needed to compete in the global economy, or become a productive citizen, most of that time was wasted: time struggling to find relevant content; in line at the copy machine; manually using slips of paper to mark pages; leaning over the copy machine; discarding bad copies; and bringing home the remainder. Out of 100 parents and teachers, I doubt that you could find 5 who would compel their students to use that form of research rather than Google. As Peter himself noted, “I teach at a one-to-one school and would never turn the clock back.” If there are a few students who cannot learn at all using technology, then a teacher can spend extra time with those students—perhaps while the other students are doing multiplication drills with tailored game-based learning. These tools are just that: tools—tools that can help America’s students adapt to the changing world.
Are these schools possible?
You worry about technology and economics. You worry that healthy foods are not achievable on local budgets. You worry that all unnecessary costs have already been cut, which suggests that every current dollar is well spent. You say: “A good adaptive, AI-driven engaging personalized education system doesn't exist—and I don't believe it ever will. Certainly not in an economically viable form.”
I’m not entirely sure how to respond to this while maintaining the mutually informative, fact-based tone both of us want in this exchange. A lot of suspicion has built up over the years of these debates. But, in the spirit of trying to continue the dialog, let’s give it a go.
Let’s start with what’s impossible.
Both of my parents are alive today because of medical interventions and a medical model (Kaiser Permanente) that did not even exist at the time of their birth. Short surveys of the past, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, show how rapidly change is accelerating. Books such as The Second Machine Age and The Most Human Human go into considerable fact-based review of how machines today do things that were widely believed, even a few years ago, as “impossible” for machines to ever do. This results from the math of exponential laws, such as the half-century of declining computing costs predicted by Moore’s Law. In 1996, the government introduced the world’s most powerful supercomputer, the $55 million ASCI Red. By 2006, the ASCI Red had less computing power than a $500 Sony Playstation. Today, the voice-enabled search capabilities of Siri plus Google on your iPhone have vastly more power than the Cray supercomputers of the 1980s, and go beyond what most science fiction imagined as recently as the 1990s.
Computing’s plummeting costs are enabling cost reductions in many other areas. For example, the first full human genome sequence was started in 1990 and took nearly $3 billion and 15 years. Today, a better genome sequence takes two weeks and less than one thousand dollars.
General Motors was certain electric cars would not be economically viable, until Tesla proved otherwise.
Michio Kaku’s book The Physics of the Future gives a reasonable glance into the future based on current technologies. Kaku’s vision is much less aggressive than that of other futurists. The short version is that the world tomorrow will likely look as magical to us as flying planes and heart transplants would look to our forebears of a few generations ago.
Frontline teachers, especially skeptics, may wonder what this has to do with their jobs. And, indeed, they would not be alone. Millions of professionals, including lawyers, accountants, chemists, and doctors, expressed similar skepticism in the 1980s and 1990s about the implications of change for their professions. The path from disruptive change to everyday practice is winding and uncertain. That said, when change happens, those who have foresight tend to adapt better. As a business consultant, I spent time in the 1990s with professionals at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, and I have also spent time with professionals from Fujifilm headquartered in Tokyo. Although both firms were very similar in the 1980s, their different responses to changing technologies led to radically different outcomes; Fujifilm today has roughly 2000x the revenues, and more than 10x the employees, of Kodak. I was part of the executive team of a large law firm in the early 2000s; ongoing change made some lawyers more successful, some less successful, and wiped out some legal jobs entirely.
This is not just a private sector story. The cities of Pittsburgh and Cleveland have revitalized themselves, while the cities of Detroit and Buffalo have not. The United States military underwent massive and beneficial changes after Vietnam, radically improving performance while keeping costs flat (and thus radically reducing America’s per-capita costs in national defense), while federal prisons have gotten more expensive and less effective by most measures. The book The Starfish and the Spider talks about how institutions in various sectors (including the public sector) adapt better or worse to change.
This broad survey is intended to explain the disconnect when you write: “But your overall notion that there are places where we could cut fat out of the costs of school are precious. There isn't a district in the country that hasn't cut costs in every way they can think of.” Your words could be almost a direct quote from many of the folks I have worked with at Kodak, or at law firms, or in public institutions. In 1995, I spent time helping the hundreds of employees headquartered at the Massachusetts Department of Education. I’ve spoken extensively with Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who I know are not your friends but who did in fact run very large school districts in the 2000s. The idea that these organizations had “cut costs in every way you can think of” is simply not true. They had only cut the wrong costs. They were still leaking money out of huge holes by paying for the wrong things.
Change is not easy. Building new institutions is hard. The exact path is never clear. But the radical future I described is possible, and indeed likely to come into existence somewhere. My hope is that it comes into existence for public school students in the United States, sooner rather than later, rather than only for the children of the rich or in other countries.
How can we get these desirable schools?
You think that I accuse skeptics of “just being stubborn,” that I fail to properly value the experience of classroom teachers, and that I want to hand over control over schools’ purse strings to “unelected guys in some boardroom.” This combination of statements exemplifies the problem but perhaps also offers a potential solution.
As I’ve explained in this thread and in responses to your commenters, I do not claim to be an experienced classroom teacher with expertise in pedagogy or curriculum. I agree that such voices are vital in building future classrooms. I like the idea of teacher-led schools, as the NEA often celebrates. Further, I agree that purse strings should be held only by the public sector: elected officials should decide where money goes and under what conditions, and whether the money has been well spent.
That said, the transformation of a vast enterprise requires many different kinds of expertise. School policy and administration require input from many sources, not only that of frontline teachers. Technological disruption and budget reforms involve complexity and uncertainty. Just as pedagogical and curricular expertise requires time in classrooms, expertise in radical bureaucratic reform requires time running large bureaucracies (especially school systems) and/or observing massive disruption (especially from the point of view of places like Silicon Valley). You and many of your readers may instinctively reject the idea that these kinds of “boardroom perspectives” have anything to add to debates about school policy. Indeed, heavily subsidized arguments from folks like Mercedes Schneider [I will save you the trouble of clicking the links-- there is nothing there to support the implication that Mercedes Schneider is heavily subsidized by anybody] go into great detail about the evils of people who have such perspective. But just as a classroom is a complicated mix of individual students, such that teaching requires many years to obtain expertise, a school system is a complicated mix of many inputs, and systems-management perspectives are relevant.
So who should be involved in making decisions, and driving change? If public funds are intended for the benefit of students, then students must be well served. Since students, especially younger students, have little ability to vouch for that, we must empower their proxies. That means, most prominently, parents and elected officials. Other crucial voices include professional employees such as teachers and counselors, as well as college admissions officers, employers, journalists, and nonprofits. To be clear, venture capitalists themselves should have relatively little public voice. Venture capitalists can provide critical funding to new ideas. They do not, and cannot, provide revenue. Capital markets are not the same thing as revenue sources. On the other hand, school boards are also highly imperfect. A local community school board could, conceptually, be a proxy for students, but the evidence suggests that such boards (a) have geographic boundaries and electoral timing that suppress turnout and thus reduce democratic control, and (b) control financial resources in a way that exacerbates economic inequality.
All of this gets back to the original argument. If we want change, parents and other actors need to engage thoughtfully, expect extraordinary results, and work together. We can do this.