Monthly Archives: February 2011

How to Fix “Education”

I don’t know how to fix our educational system…

But I know we can do better.

I just finished watching Waiting for Superman (a movie you should watch if you haven’t). The punchline of the movie is something we all know well: schools in America aren’t doing a good enough job at educating our kids.

If you are reading this, chances are you were lucky enough to have been born in a good neighborhood to loving and supportive parents and likely can’t relate to the challenges that way too many of our kids face. I know I was, and I’m incredibly thankful for what was a quality public school education.

However, there are way too many people who aren’t as lucky as we were, and we owe it to them and our children to give them more.

A good education is so fundamentally important to a well-functioning society it is staggering to me that we aren’t doing better. A democracy can only function if the populous is educated – and the fundamental rights of life, liberty and happiness aren’t achievable if you can’t be an active participatant in society. That a large portion of our population is not able to do so just because of where they were born is morally repugnant.

So what should we do about it?

One starting place mentioned in the movie is that we need better teachers.

I’m not going to quote data, so disagree if you must, but there are a lot of bad teachers out there. In my opinion, truly bad teachers should be fired just like in other professions. Unfortunately, due to the power of teachers unions and concepts like tenure and seniority this is sometimes hard if not impossible. This must change. I’m not suggesting an outsider should come in with a hatchet and start firing all teachers who appear to be struggling. Clearly training and experience are necessary before one can judge performance – in any profession – but after the bad performance is clear, allowing bad teachers to stay is unacceptable.

We should also recruit and train teachers as well or better than Goldman Sachs and McKinsey recruit and train their employees. And teachers should also have the opportunity to get paid as much as they could by working in private professions. Doing so is obviously a challenge given the public nature of our educational system, but plenty of public employees get paid well (judges, elected officials etc). Given the amount of money we spend on education in this country (and on prisons for those who drop out), I think smart people can solve this problem. This would help to attract and retain smart and hard working people to an important job in our society.

What is more complicated than solving the “teacher” problem, however, is solving the “student” problem.

What I mean is that part of the reason kids drop out of school and performance drops so much when kids get into middle school has little to do with the teachers – it is about the students themselves.

Clearly one should not blame a 12 year old for a failing school. So what I mean by “student” is really more about the community and family lives of the most challenged kids in our society.

One of the problems we face in solving this issue is that it involves so much stuff – much of which is very uncomfortable and controversial.

Specifically, generational poverty, lack of role models, community structure, safe neighborhoods, peer support and other issues impacting many kids are bound up in realities of still very-challenging civil rights struggles that were only just fought by our parents’ generation.

More directly: it is not a coincidence that the “achievement gap” in our educational system usually falls along socio-economic and often racial and ethnic lines.

These topics are uncomfortable to think about and sometimes not even possible to discuss, because of the understandable pain and anger that people often feel around such issues. But like it or not, we need to face these issues head on because our kids need us to.

I’m not sure how to do that or even what I think needs to change specifically, but I do think issues of inequality are helping to perpetuate broken communities which make it hard for kids to have better lives.

I think perhaps part of it boils down to the idea that we need to provide people with more opportunities – and jobs – to allow them to be contributing members of our society.

Maybe the intellectual error we are making is in assuming that just because the older kids “dropped out” or even went to prison, that they cant have a chance for a good life.

Maybe if we used some of the entrepreneurial spirit that is currently frothing the angel and VC markets to tackle this issue, we could create business models and alternative career paths that would help give jobs to people currently without hope or dignity … who are in situations where selling drugs is sometimes the most economically rational career path.

This would be difficult because they lack “skills,” but given how powerful and easy to use devices like iPads and the like are, perhaps we could figure out businesses and jobs that leveraged these aspects of the devices to allow currently-disenfranchised people to contribute to society. I have no really concrete idea how this might work, but it just seems like we have a lot of people out there who need jobs and if we could figure out a way to harness them it would kill two birds with one stone.

I’m not sure if this is right, but it does seem that helping communities is likely a mandatory component of any truly comprehensive “reform” program.

Other ideas on the “student” side of the equation are more straightforward – mentorship is one. And providing kids with knowledge of their options is another.

For awhile I’ve noodled with the idea of building a site where people would talk about their career paths in an open format so kids could see what possibilities were out there – think of it like an “open” informational interview site, or an “open” Linked-In, where kids could just see what paths are available to them. I think if you give kids the power to dream and a path to look forward to, it might help.

Who knows if I’ll ever build that or if it is even a good idea but maybe it will serve as food for thought for somebody out there…

I’m not sure how to fix education.

But I do know we can do better and that we absolutely must.

Please let me know if you have any silver bullets.