BIG IDEA, LITTLE APPLICATION

BIG IDEA, LITTLE APPLICATION

Ted Mitchell, CEO of New Schools Venture Fund, which has raised $3.4 billion over the past decade for entrepreneurs in education, has a big idea.  His big idea is to allow kids to progress at their own pace, accumulate course credit as they master their work, not as they put in required time. Ted says that the good news is that we actually now have technology tools that can help us do that. We have adapted tools that provide students with the right challenge for the right problem sets and examples as they move through courses like algebra or chemistry or even American history.

As many as 25 years ago, there was a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, in conjunction with Germany and what they found was that we have the “formula” for education bassackwards. We hold time constant and make education the variable.  In other words, a student has so much time, whether a quarter, a semester or a year (what Ted Mitchell and others call seat time) to get it.  Ted’s daughter has a semester, or a year to embrace Algebra I.   He says what if she could show mastery of Algebra I in four weeks?   That is but one example.  

If we are about reforming and reshaping education, we would hold education constant and make time the variable.  The sad conclusion of the study was that although this was clearly the problem, it would not happen because schools and those in charge would not be willing to change the system.  It is not only broken.  It is mired in the status quo, protected by incompetency, institutional arteriosclerosis and fear.   Do you think the Gates Foundation’s billions to reform high schools, Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million to Newark’s public schools, and the gazillions of dollars being thrown at the problem to try and fix schools are making a significant difference?

There are plenty of people with big ideas and if money would make the difference we would have seen the impact long ago.   What I concluded was that education was not going to reform itself in the same way that governments refuse to change.  Educators are not going to solve the problem because they are the problem and the only way we will have reform is a revolution.  I believe it’s time for real intervention and rehabilitation.  Systemic change requires the commitment and action of those responsible and for too long we have thought that if we just got better at what we were doing, that would be sufficient.  It isn’t.

Here’s a quote from one principal that illustrates what has to happen. “At first I didn’t see the magnitude of the change. I thought if we just did better what we had always done, we would be OK. Then I realized we had to do something totally different, but I didn’t know what. Gradually we began trying some new approaches. One change led to another and another and another, like dominos. I started to see what people meant by systemic change. A new energy and excitement surged among us as hope grew and the cloudy vision of what we wanted became clearer and clearer.”

The really big idea is change, real change, not just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!  How do we get the change that is needed?  There has to be some agreement on what is needed and then we have to get rid of the industrial/factory model of education and replace it with one that is designed to set kids on fire with learning, to ignite their passion and purpose beyond themselves and turn them loose on solving the world’s problems that are confronting all of us.

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