Unleashing An Education Renaissance

My design studio recently sponsored an inspiring event produced by Raaya Design called Protothon: Designing Hands-on Learning Experiences. Roughly twenty participants including educators, designers, parents, and even some elementary school students broke into teams of 4-5 to brainstorm on a variety of topics related to education. The topics ranged from creating learning games, to re-imagining the future of education. The groups then used some quick prototyping techniques to develop and then present their ideas to the other groups.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see all of the presentations, but the ones I did see were packed with creative ideas and solutions. There was a really cool collaborative learning game where teammates took turns rolling dice like cubes. One teammate could add or multiply and the other could the subtract or divide the numbers on the dice until they reached a target number. Another project involved designing a more open community campus where various learning areas were centered around a courtyard and interspersed with working businesses such as a doctor’s office or a general store. The parents and students could use the businesses and the students could learn about and even help run them.

One idea that I thought was super cool was transforming the grade level system into a “badging” system. Instead of students being grouped according to age and taking a fixed curriculum each year, students would receive badges when they mastered a certain topic. Some badges such as grade level reading and math would be required for graduation. Students could learn at their own pace with students at their skill level as opposed to their age level, with the end goal being mastering the material. Advanced students could knock out their basic badges and then move on to fun and interesting badges of their choice like multi-media or science projects. This reminded me of Cub Scouts, where it was actually fun to learn a new skill and a friendly competition to earn badges.

The passion and excitement of the participants was immediately evident. It reminded me a lot of the thriving tech and entrepreneurial culture here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Teams were (to use a stale, overused cliche) thinking outside the box. They were building off of each other’s ideas, smashing down existing paradigms and building whole new ones from scratch. They had no vested interests and few limitations from pre-conceived notions. They simply asked, “what are the possibilities for education?” And in six short hours, these twenty strangers had come up with numerous ideas that were vastly superior to our current system.

The whole experience just reinforced my belief that there is no shortage of extremely intelligent, creative, dedicated, hard-working, conscientious people trying to solve the problems we face with education in America. And while new to me, apparently many of these ideas from the Protothon (and many other great ideas) have been floating around education circles for years. So why is our education system in such a sorry state?

The answer was staring at me when I opened my internet homepage to the lead story of the Chicago public teachers union strike. The contrast could not have been any more stark. The strike highlights the antagonistic nature of our current public schools system, pitting teachers’ union against the Mayor and taxpayers, with the children as collateral damage.

Before I continue I want to be absolutely clear that my beef is not with (most of) the teachers. People get into teaching because they have a genuine desire to help kids learn. The teachers I know are smart, hardworking and dedicated to helping their students succeed. Readers can form their own opinions about whether the salary and benefits per hour worked are too high or low.

My argument is with the failed public school system and the union bureaucrats that fight to perpetuate that system at all costs. And by all accounts, the system has failed, especially for kids from poor families. While reading articles about the strike I came across a statistic that only 8% of Chicago public high school freshmen go on to get a four year college degree. That is an incredible number at a time when nearly anyone with a pulse can get government student loan for college.

Click the image to see all the steps involved in firing a teacher in NYC

The sticking point in the Chicago strike seems to be that the union doesn’t want teachers to be evaluated based on merit. But for the sake of the kids we need teachers to be evaluated based on merit so the best teachers can teach and thrive and the worst teachers can find another profession. In Wisconsin, the union didn’t want teachers to have to contribute more to their lucrative and underfunded pensions and wanted to maintain the ability to bargain collectively. But even the original progressive (O.P.) Franklin Roosevelt saw the danger in public unions since they were negotiating with the people they had the power to help get elected at the expense of the taxpayer. In New York City, the teachers union has made it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers, even felons. The NYC school system even has a place called the “rubber room”, a building where they stick the worst teachers so they won’t be near the kids, but still collect a paycheck. These bad teachers need to be fired so good teachers can take their place.

The cry is always that we just need more money for the schools, but we have been throwing more and more money at the problem for years and things are not getting better. The graph below shows that test scores have remained flat while the money for the school system has risen dramatically.

So what’s the solution?

Back to my experience at the Protothon event, what struck me the most was that all of those good ideas from the Protothon have absolutely zero chance of being implemented any time soon in our current public education system. The top-down, union-driven, excessively bureaucratic nature of the system makes originality and change extremely difficult. There are simply too many powerful constituencies and too much red tape to get anything done.

So if throwing more money into a broken system isn’t the answer, what is the best way to educate our children? I have no idea. In fact, nobody does, nor could they possibly (even the experts in Washington DC). Not only that, but there isn’t one best way to educate all kids.

However, what I do know is a much better system which will allow thousands of great ideas to flourish in an attempt to find the best ways to educate our kids and deliver that education in the most efficient way possible.

What are the conditions for success? Local control and competition.

Vouchers – It’s so obvious it’s ridiculous

The pure libertarian position on education would be for the private market to provide education and for parents to buy education just as they would buy other essential goods for their kids like food, clothing, daycare, etc. However, I think the majority of libertarians, myself included, are willing to acquiesce and allow for public financing of elementary and secondary education. This is because a) almost everyone is for public financing, and b) since it adds to the general public benefit and aligns with the American value that everyone should have the opportunity to try to improve their lives regardless of circumstance they are born into.

A properly run voucher system can satisfy the requirements of local control and competition while at the same time providing public financing so that poor and disadvantaged children are given the same opportunities as the rest of society.

The main arguments against vouchers are that it would hurt public schools, hurt teachers, and hurt poor children. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are myths perpetuated by the entrenched interests. The only people who would be hurt by a voucher system are union bosses and redundant bureaucrats throughout the system.

The only argument that is partially true is that a voucher system would hurt public schools. But we don’t need public schools for the sake of public schools; they only exist to serve the students. Public schools (or government run schools as I like to call them) would still exist in a voucher system, they would just have to compete with privately run schools. If private schools can educate children better, the market will sort it out. Even unions could exist with a voucher system, only they would be private sector unions negotiating with private schools.

So who benefits from vouchers?

Teachers – Anecdotally, the job satisfaction seems to be much higher for teachers at private and charter schools than public schools. This is true despite private school teachers often receiving less pay. Private and charter teachers have more control over their curriculum, better environments and more autonomy in the way they teach their students. One could argue that has something to do with the students coming from better circumstances and being better behaved, but charter school pioneers like Ben Chavis have proven that it’s possible to create great learning environments for even the worst students in the poorest parts of town. With vouchers, the money follows the students so naturally, schools will want to hire the best teachers to attract students (customers) and they will pay good salaries to get those teachers.

Parents – All parents want the best opportunities for their kids. Vouchers give parents the choice to send their kids to the best schools that work best for their families. Also, since they are paying the school with the voucher money, parents have an incentive to be more involved with the school to make sure they are getting a good value for their money. With today’s system poor families have no choice but to send their kids to the failing public school where they live.

Taxpayers – A locally run voucher system would be much more efficient and slash bureaucratic waste. As of 2010, the average cost per student in America was $10,615 according to the U.S. census. My guess is that 100 out of 100 entrepreneurs would say they could give kids a better education for half of that cost.

The Students – While it is nice that vouchers would benefit teachers, parents and taxpayers, the only reason the education system exists is to teach the students. It’s not a jobs program for teachers. As I will describe below, competition and school choice would generate a dramatic improvement in learning opportunities for all kids and especially poor kids and kids with special needs.

Local Control

The U.S. Constitution does not give the Federal Government the power to legislate education, which means that power is reserved for the states. For that reason alone, the Department of Education and all federal funding and laws related to education should be ended immediately.

But legal reasons aside, it makes absolutely no sense to send tax money to Washington D.C. so they can siphon off a big chunk to pay D.C. bureaucrats and then send what’s left of the tax money back to the states with burdensome stipulations and mandates. If, instead, that tax money stayed in the states, we would have, as Gary Johnson would say, fifty laboratories of innovation trying different approaches to administering education. The best practices would be emulated. The worst practices would be abandoned. And states could tailor their education system to the needs and the desires of their citizens.

New York may choose to keep the school system as is. New Hampshire may decide to let each county collect their own school revenue and administer education as they see fit. Wisconsin may implement a state voucher system where every student gets $10,000 to spend on any school they like as long as they fit certain curriculum requirements. Arizona may fund vouchers on the state level but let the schools come up with their own curricula. North Carolina may give out vouchers of varying amounts based on cost of living adjustments and special needs of the students. All of these options would work better than the current system and the best methods would soon emerge.

My personal approach would be to keep it as local as possible. At the state level I would recommend a partial voucher, perhaps 50% of today’s cost of education which would be $5000 per student with basic aptitude test requirements in standard core curriculum subjects like math, science, literacy, and history that would have to be met for a school or home-school to qualify for funds. Then counties or cities would fund and administer the rest. For example, some counties may provide an additional voucher of $5000 with their own qualifying stipulations and an additional $1000-$5000 for children with special needs. Other counties may choose to fund public schools with tax money and let parents choose if they want to put their state voucher towards a private school or get free schooling from the public school.

The more local the administration of education is, the more choices parents have and the more able they are to influence their school administrators. With local control, a few angry parents could meet with the school principal to air their grievances. As it stands today, you’d need to get fifty thousand of your friends from the PTA to march on Washington D.C. to even hope to get your voice heard.

Competition

The beauty of the voucher system is that it puts the education funds in the hands of the parents who can then choose the school that best suits their child’s needs. Schools would need to compete for students to get those voucher dollars by providing the best service and education for the buck.

And compete they would. $10,615 per student is a lot of money. Assuming a class size of 20, it’s enough to pay each teacher $100,000 a year and still have $100,000 per classroom per year for overhead. Schools would have a powerful incentive to attract and keep students. And the way you do that is by pleasing your customers. Schools would want to hire the best teachers, provide a safe and constructive learning environment, show a track record of achievement and success, and in general, meet the needs of the parents and students.

One final justification for public schools (and excuse for their shortcomings) that I want to address is that private schools can kick students out if they cause trouble. That’s true. It’s a good thing if schools kick out kids who are repeat offenders at disrupting the learning of the other students that want to learn. In a voucher system, schools would have an incentive to help those kids reform and become better citizens since they don’t want to lose a customer. Parents would have an incentive to make sure their kids are behaving because they are spending good money to send their kid to that school. However, in exceptional cases where students refuse to reform, they can be kicked out and start fresh at a new school that will accept them. For repeat offenders, their only option may be a bootcamp style school with a mandate to reform and empower problem kids so they can be better students and citizens. Perhaps counties could kick in extra funds for the more difficult administrative challenges at those schools.

At the school level, different schools would try all different approaches to providing education and serving the needs of their customers. Some schools may adapt more technology-based education. Some, more personalized, hands-on teaching. Some may post videos of their lessons online so parents can see what’s being taught and kids can review the lessons any time they want. Some may try innovative learning methods like badging or the open community school. Some may emphasize the basics. Some schools may partner up to pool resources such as a shared sports field or library system. Some schools may offer a more flexible curriculum with vocational training or internship programs. The possibilities are endless but in every case, the schools would ultimately be accountable to their students.

Competition breeds innovation and progress. Nowhere is this more evident than where I live in the Silicon Valley.  All around me I see startup companies trying new ideas and building on past ideas. Some fail, some succeed in revolutionary ways, and through this creative destruction technological innovation marches forward.

In just six hours our Protothon event produced several great ideas and twists on old ideas. Now multiply that by hundreds of thousands of educators, innovators, and entrepreneurs across the country spending days, weeks and years trying to figure out the best way to provide education so kids will want to go to their school. The best way to get kids to go to your school is to educate them exceptionally well.

Or, we can stick with our government schools run by the same people who run the post office. It’s up to all of us to decide.

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For more information and current events about vouchers and school choice, check out the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

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If you’re still craving more common sense about education, check out the following video by John Stossel called “Stupid in America.”

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