The Commonwealth Blog

Getting buy-in for an education revolution

Oct 8, 2013 @ 2:46 PM by mbaig

There’s much to be said about the education system, not just in the United States but also across the world. When Sir Ken Robinson spoke at The Commonwealth Club he talked about the education system being styled like an industrial era assembly line, one that stunts creativity and forces students to fit a schedule and predefined form of learning instead of opening up creative avenues to explore their potential. Similarly, last week at another Commonwealth Club program, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, talked about the mass of homework that teenagers receive these days, in addition to the barrage of extracurricular activities they are involved in. It’s a race to keep up, because ultimately that race determines what happens after high school. Khan said that the system doesn’t provide space for students to explore their creativity, to learn in different ways or take their time in mastering a subject. “The assembly line is moving on,” he said. “They can’t get off.” This article in The Atlantic is a perfect example of how the current education system can drive kids to simply be students moving from one requirement to the next, not individuals invested in learning. 

The education conversation is not a new one. As a nation, we’ve been advised of the declining numbers of students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields within the United States. There also have been back-and-forth debates about teacher effectiveness and what it takes to be successful in the classroom. Along those same lines, the entire sense of how we define success is also up for questioning. Do SATs really measure a student’s intellectual ability? How do we account for gaps in test scores for students of color? According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there are 850 four-year colleges that do not use the SAT or ACT as part of evaluating an application, a response to the questions that these tests pose. 

Things are further complicated by disparities among schools: public schools vs. charter schools; schools that have more funding compared to those that don’t; schools in higher-income neighborhoods compared to those in lower-income neighborhoods. A report by the OECD analyzed various factors within education and ranked the U.S. as 6th out of 36 in educational attainment. It noted that in the U.S, as of 2010, 89 percent of adults had at least a high school degree; the OECD average is only 74 percent. However, the rest of the data doesn’t present as optimistic an outlook: U.S. students scored a 496 in reading literacy, math and the sciences, on par with scores from Hungary and Sweden but one point less than the OECD average of 497. This ranks the U.S. 20th out of 36. Students in Finland had the highest scores at 543. The U.S. scored worse on the social inequality scale, ranking 27th out of 36, close to Brazil and New Zealand.

But ultimately, it comes down to the stakeholders involved. Our public education system at one point was touted as the best in the world. And even today, students from all over the world come to the United States to advance their studies. As such, it has also become entrenched in its ways. Change has been difficult to implement because the process as it stands today was very successful and got us where we are. What is difficult to recognize, however, is that it may not get us where we want to go.

The education industry is massive and distribution of wealth within it is disproportionate.  This infographic points out that while the U.S. is top of the list in terms of spending per student, that spending doesn’t correlate to better outcomes in math or science. That may have something to do with how effectively or ineffectively the money is being spent. And there are studies that show that when it comes to achievement, the divide between the rich and the poor is growing. 

That says nothing of the for-profit market that has created itself around education. Everything from testing services to test preparation to personalized tutoring all contribute to the current culture of test-driven education. Frontline reported that the testing industry is worth anywhere from $400 million to $700 million. Every high school student with any plans to pursue higher education knows that registering for the SAT will cost money, $51 to be exact, and the loss of a Saturday. And the costs add up depending on how many times a student takes the exam. Of course, the test is not always about intellect but also strategy, so you’ll need to prepare for it. That’s where Kaplan comes in: you can choose from the lowest-cost test prep program at $299 or go up to the unlimited prep program that costs $1,099. 

These companies are not necessarily to blame, because they don’t operate in a vacuum. They are responding to a need that the system has created—a need to excel in a test-driven environment, which is seen as the only determinant to succeeding. Success in this case is defined as acceptance to a high-caliber college, which operates within the same system. Of course, adding these additional facets to the education machine creates anything but a level playing field.

Khan pointed out during his Commonwealth Club program that the traditional education model today groups together students by age in a lecture-like setting. Each topic within the subject gets a few weeks’ attention and when time is up, the class moves on to the next topic.  That, for Khan, is a problem. He argues that instead of time as a fixed constraint and how much a student learns as a variable, it should be the other way around. “What should be fixed is that everyone gets an A and the variable is how long it takes you,” he said. 

Khan Academy’s mission is to provide a world-class education for anyone anywhere and to truly make education a fundamental human right. But how do we accomplish that within today’s system? By focusing on what’s best for the students, according to Khan. He’s concerned about the impact of the entire system on students: in commenting on the SAT during a phone interview, he said that he’s not afraid of the test itself but “of the overweighing of the test and what it does for the classroom.” If students are learning well and are able to perform better on tests for that reason, that teaches good behavior. However, if students are only learning to take tests, learning at its optimal is not happening and that’s not the outcome Khan envisions for a dynamic classroom.

He noted, “Students are starting to crave other options. The decision to go to college now for students is much different than it was for me, and I’m not that old.” Khan also added that colleges will need to look at rising tuition costs and the outcomes students can expect after graduation because those are changing and having an impact. “The cracks in the idea that college is the ticket for a middle class living [are already forming],” he said. That’s not to say that physical institutions will not be needed — “I’m a big believer that there’s a role for the physical institution [in the system],” Khan said. But he added that providing alternative routes for education, not just for those who can’t afford it but for everyone who wants an education, is one way to catalyze the bottoms-up approach to change.

The change won’t happen overnight, Khan noted. “It’s kind of the wild, wild west right now in online education and how it will impact the system,” he said. But he’s very optimistic that in the next 20 years, the education system will change dramatically, in the best interest of the students who take part in it.