Saving Public Education from Itself

Guest blog by Troy Miller, entrepreneur and educator. @troykmiller

TechCrunch.com today wrote about the $100 million round raised by Altschool, a private school network who is taking the necessary steps to revolutionize education in California and across the US. My hat is off to them. Perhaps this is the kick in the shorts needed for public education to change.

Public educators and industry alike, for years, have voiced the need for revolutionizing education away from the industrial “student management” system that the US has entrenched itself in during the past 150+ years. Yet, instead of creating completely new paradigms, such as Altschool, we’re stuck with micro steps. We find the necessary macro-shift difficult because large, inflexible entities that have had much success in the past are very poor change agents even though their future relevancy depends on it! When monopolies don’t respond to necessary change, then the private industry steps up to do what capitalists do best- capitalize. We can learn much from failed monopolies.

When Monopolies Lose

Take the newspaper industry as example of failing monopoly. The local newspaper was once such a sure bet for banks that it would receive a ridiculously high valuation when it wanted to borrow money. But times have changed. Now ask a banker how she feels about the stability of the newspaper industry.

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Newspaper ad revenue in 2014 dropped below 1950 revenue, adjusted for inflation. Source- Newspaper Association of America

With the advent of the internet, the bottom fell out for newspapers, however the deterioration looks different for the tax-payer-subsidized monopoly known as public education. While newspapers witness declining subscriptions and advertising revenue, funding in US public schools generally increases or remains static (see previous entry by ThThTh). This is because, unlike teachers, public school districts do not receive funding from what they’ve earned; public school districts receive money based on how many students they funnel through the chutes each year. Someone please show me where to find the financial incentive for districts to radically innovate. “Don’t mess with the model, and everything will be okay.” But, it’s not okay for public education.

There’s a Better Way

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School funding doubled between 1990 and 2005. Source- https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/10facts/edlite-chart.html

The most noble incentive to change should be the belief that there is a better way to educate for 21st century skills…a better way to train youth. We need to ask ourselves why education is not changing rapidly enough. It’s because we all drank the same kool aid. Most Americans sat in rows and were lectured at with expectations of regurgitating information or applying out-of-context formulas. We were graded based on how well we could take tests and memorize facts (which we forgot moments later). We did it, just like our great, great grandparents did it, and we turned out fine…right? Yet, none of us carried a supercomputer in our pockets as we do today. Information is now an inexpensive commodity and instantly accessible. Why are we teaching students how to “do school as it’s always been done” when what we really want are students who are active thinkers who utilize the abundantly available information with the purpose of creating something new or solving problems together?

My premise is this-  Public education needs to identify a handful of innovations that are required for the shift to 21st century training of youth, and then these innovations need to be funded as priorities and rolled out aggressively. One such innovation, commonly referred to as “Project-Based Learning”, is a cornerstone of the privately funded Altschool referenced earlier. If public education is unable or unwilling to adopt real-world-based education models, then private education will eat our lunch, at which point the students remaining in stagnant public education are the real losers.

Innovations Exist. Execution is Needed.

I’ve worked with one of these necessary innovative school models; we call ourselves Iowa BIG. Iowa BIG is Iowa’s Initiative-based public high school experience. By partnering intimately with industry, Iowa BIG creates Makers, Designers, Storytellers, and Entrepreneurs. Our students tackle in-depth real opportunities, plus students receive required core classroom credit. We can do this, in part, because we’re putting the public back into public education.

tracksThe biggest threat to the US is if public schools fail to incorporate paradigm shifts, because then we’re stuck in the perpetual machine of decreasing relevancy during rapidly changing times, while experiencing monopolistically protected revenues. Innovations aren’t cheap, however we are at a historically critical juncture where public education needs new sources of dedicated funding to set ourselves onto fundamentally different tracks.

Unfortunately, paradigm shifts in public education aren’t being treated as priorities by most public education entities, which makes it pretty difficult to lay new tracks. In fact, we see the opposite happening. When public education receives its yearly 4% revenue increase to account for inflation,  status quo largely ensues. When funding does not meet the 4% increase, as we are seeing in Iowa, innovation suffers  by being under-funded because the monopoly hasn’t sustained inflation-adjusted revenues (also resulting in 900 teachers statewide receiving pink slips).

In order to save public education from itself, we need to identify and FUND necessary new paradigms. Next week we’ll look more closely at “putting the public back into public education” as a method of saving public education from itself.