Archive | April, 2012

The new model for schools: a five point plan

18 Apr

Post by Ezra Roizen

There’s a scene in the new Star Trek where kid Spock is in an individual learning pod with poetry, calculus and whales floating by.  This scene is immediately followed by him swapping blows with a crew of sociopathic Vulcan classmates.  I think these two scenes sum up my concerns about an overly automated education. Sure these Vulcan kids would nail their standardized test, but they’re also sorely lacking in social skills and grace.

Computers can’t do everything, but they can do some things.  But I’m jumping ahead, first let’s frame the problem.

On a comparable basis of education spending / GDP the US is at the top end of developed countries, here’s a clip from the World Bank list:

  • Norway – 6.8% (education spend / GDP)
  • Saudi Arabia – 6.4%
  • France – 5.6%
  • United Kingdom – 5.5%
  • United States – 5.5%
  • Brazil – 5.1%
  • Canada – 4.9%
  • Australia – 4.5%
  • Germany – 4.5%
  • Japan – 3.5%

It’s important to note that the US is much bigger than most of these countries (we spend over $800 billion a year on education, Germany, for example spends closer to $130 billion).  We also have a much more diverse economy than most countries.  If you take the European Union as a whole (I think our closest comparable), in aggregate we’re spending about the same, if anything a bit more as a percentage of GDP (there wasn’t data for China and India).

One really important factor in US education spending is the disparity between rich and poor states, and even more acutely, the difference between rich and poor districts within those states.  Jonathan Kozol speaks very well to these issues.  Educational resources are clearly not evenly distributed.  But I don’t want to digress into definitions of “fair,” that’s a different question from the one I want to discuss now.

What I want to highlight is that we’re spending a lot, and frankly, we’re not likely going to be able to spend much more.  A few billion here-and-there doesn’t move the macro $800 billion needle.  We’re not going to get to 10% of GDP for education.

We have to make 5-6% of GDP work.

The good news is I don’t think the world’s best schools are out of reach.  I contend we can do it on less than we’re currently spending, and I believe the marginal improvements would be greatest for the least well off school districts.

Here are my five priorities for kids in school:

1.     to be literate in a core set of topics (math, language, history, geography, science);

2.     to get plenty of physical exercise;

3.     for them to have opportunities to be creative (art, dance, music);

4.     to learn social skills (sharing, community) and for them to have instilled in them basic pan-American values (freedom, liberty, justice, equal opportunity) ;

5.     have a basic preparedness for work and life.

When I drop my kids off in the morning this is the blend of activities in which I’d love for them to be immersed.  I’m not a tiger-mom, nor a French-parent.  Just a regular guy who wants a happy, healthy, engaging environment for his kids – and who believes the rest will generally take care of itself.

To this end, here is how I believe we can radically change the US (and one day, perhaps global) education system, increase student engagement, and get much more for our money.

First, we can collapse the cost of delivering education for core literacy topics.  I’m fine if my kids learn subjects like math and English substantially from a computer.   I believe, as demonstrated by Professor Sugata Mitra, that kids, in the right environment, can teach each other, and learn in groups.  I’m completely confident we can create outstanding online curricula and could put hundreds of kids together, or in groups, or on their own (with the ability to get help from teachers, assistants and their peers) to learn these subjects for a few hours per day.

Watch what Salman Khan has done with Khan Academy – the lecture is now the homework and the homework is now done in class.  He calls it the death of the “one size fits all lecture.”  His thesis (and I agree) is that the talking part of class is best done at home, at the student’s pace, and the class is the venue for collaboration and assistance around the application of the subject (the thing previously known as homework!).  This is a powerful and revolutionary innovation.

This model will be enabled by tailored instruction and seamlessly blends home and schoolwork.

I say every kid in America gets a laptop (55 million kids in school – that’s $5.5 billion at $100 per laptop if we had to buy a new one, for every kid, each year – which we wouldn’t). Yes, that’s expensive, but less than 1% of what we spend on education each year! We could radically change the curriculum, tools, texts, feedback loops (see Khan video above on feedback loops)…everything.

Second, Kids should be moving, a lot.  One third of kids in the U.S. are overweight, while well under 10% of schools require daily physical education.  I’d wager the #1 competitor for spending money on education is going to be healthcare – let’s get kids in shape and re-purpose the money for the long run! We can augment the P.E. teaching staff with parents and part-timers. Core P.E. staff flanked by whip crackers.

Third, I’d move the money we save on classroom literacy training to the arts (broadly), our kids need to be creative. For an outstanding discussion of literacy vs. creativity listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk (this has to be in the hall of fame for TED talks).  Creativity as defined by Sir Ken is “the process of having original ideas which have value,” to this end, hear his discussion of the education of Gillian Lynne the British choreographer and director (minute 15 in the talk).  Condoleezza Rice calls it “appalling” that the arts are “extracurricular.”  The 9/11 commission said the U.S.’s most important failure in anticipating the terrorist attacks was “one of imagination.”

Fourth, I’d like to reinvigorate a deep appreciation of the American system of government, the fragility of freedom, and the power of an open society. I think our country has lost the fear of totalitarianism, and I believe that fear should be a drum beat in our lives.

For some reason, a while back, I was reading the Wikipedia profile of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, but even better as King Julian in Madagascar), in the middle he’s quoted as saying the following:

“When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.”

That thought has stuck with me for some time.  Apathy is a social cancer, and I think our kids need a deep appreciation of the work it takes to maintain a free and open society.  Karl Popper primers for all first graders!

Fifth, and last, on my list is greater real world application of education.  Kids are excited by opportunities to make money.  They like to learn practical skills.  They love to be engaged in “the real world.”

I spent much of my childhood in the British system of education (in London and Fiji).  The British do a great job of teaching life skills.  I used to really enjoy my home economics classes in London where we learned how to bake pies and muffins.  In Fiji, at what must have been around 8th grade, we had a full accounting class!  I can remember Mr. Aziz at-the-ready to reprimand a student for getting his or her debits and credits mixed up.  It was fun, I felt like I knew how to do “real stuff.”  I think giving kids opportunities to apply what they know, in increasingly real world contexts is good for them.

What’s simultaneously depressing and invigorating about this list is that our system is funneling massive resources into item 1 – classroom-based literacy education – while draining the life out of items 2 through 5.

We’re so far off the mark it’s almost comical.  This also means there’s so much low hanging fruit that we’re going to be able to make astounding advances in a short time.  With new technology, new school designs, and a new conceptualization of the staff makeup at schools, I believe we can radically change what our kids do all day, how they think, the shape they’re in, how they treat one other, and how well prepared they are for life.

Sir Ken quotes Arthur C. Clarke in his talk: “If children have interest, then education happens.”  I believe that, and I believe we can expect more from our kids, and that our kids can be empowered to help one other.

As important, we can afford what I’m proposing above.

In fact, if you look carefully, you can see flakes of this new model falling all around you.

Bring on the snowball.


Follow on perspective posted by Bart Garrett:

Yes, but…

Our first event framed a conversation about money and altruism as a good ole’ fashion debate. While education is a hugely important and intriguing topic for our next conversation together, as I fashion a response to Ezra’s post I am stuck. I struggle to draw a line in the sand and pick up a sword to debate him. Quite frankly, I think his five priorities for education in America are spot on. Further, I also agree that we will never spend a considerably higher % of our GDP on education, and thus, we must simply devise creative solutions that would increase our ROI. What is more, we obviously follow the same twitter feeds and subscribe to the same podcasts because my exposure to articles, presentations, and interviews on education is virtually the same as Ezra’s. By way of additional reference, I would only add the website of a good friend, Sajan George, who is putting some of Ezra’s suggestions to work in very innovative ways (creating a hybrid model that converges the traditional bricks and mortar schools with the latest virtual delivery systems). His new work is called Matchbook Learning, and it was featured recently on the Fast Company blog.

And so, with all of the cloying goodwill and sappy cordiality, our next conversation might not involve the bloodlust of the first one, but might look more like a Focus Group or even a Group Therapy Session. If you really miss the blood-sport of the first session, well, you can always read (or watch) Hunger Games.

But seriously, it is fun to argue with Ezra, so I will push on his strategy a bit—at least where it runs the risk of being slightly detached from reality. As I read Ezra’s Five Suggestions, five major issues come to mind: Fairness, Feasibility, Cultural Values, Moral/Ethical Values, and Parents.


Ezra touched on fairness very briefly, but primarily only to sidestep the topic. Fairness is a big deal; our system isn’t fair.  Rich kids get it good and poor kids don’t.

I have three daughters in the Oakland Public School System. Our neighborhood elementary school is incredible. The PTA is strong and raises well over $200,000 per year, and indeed, this money and the active parents behind it make this school a great one. But, my oldest daughter is transitioning into the public middle school next year. The middle school (also in our neighborhood) has 70% of its student body in the reduced/free lunch program. It is a low performing (though improving) school. Am I nervous about sending my kid there? Yes, I’m nervous. I am both nervous and scared. Will she be challenged? Will she be safe? Will she get into Berkeley? Those are the three questions I ask, though not always in that order.

When it comes to educating our kids, some of us have too many choices: Public schools, independent/private schools, charter schools, homeschools, co-op schools, and alternative schools. But more and more of us have fewer and fewer choices. I am one of those with fewer and fewer choices.  I feel the pain of those who have no choice but to work within the system – and frankly, I wonder if Ezra’s five suggestions are enough to bridge the gap of inequality. Is there a sixth suggestion out there? Throwing money at this issue is probably not the answer, but what will we throw at it?


Ezra has given us five suggestions that could be applied to our public schools that seem like great ones. He has tried to cut through many of the ideological and political arguments (more money vs. less money, bolstering the U.S. Department of Education or blowing it up, etc., etc.), and stuck to tangible and practical solutions.  But the vested interests remain.  We have an entrenched and powerful set of stakeholders in the current system.  Does anyone really think the teachers unions are going to go for a massive restructuring of their work, make up and role?  Do we think we’re going to find political leadership to push for these kinds of sea changes?  It’s going to take decades, if ever, to see Ezra’s ideas manifest in a meaningful way. Our political leaders like to make big deals about small changes, and often sidestep the big stuff. The “big idea” political topic du jour is the Buffet Rule whereby minimum tax rates would be increased for the wealthiest among us. Many of us may agree with the spirit of this change, but the actual impact of this change is estimated to be between $40 billion and $80 billion annually. That’s peanuts – on a proportional scale – it wouldn’t even be 10% of the entire national budget for education (assuming every penny went to education!).  We fight over little things, while issues like social security, health care, defense, and education – where the real money is – sit in triage waiting for attention. I’m not saying this is a Democrat or Republican problem, I’m just saying it’s very hard to get big changes made, and much easier for politicians to focus on making little things sound big. How do we mitigate the entrenchment and pull these suggestions out of Ezra’s bucolic fantasy world and into reality?

Cultural Values

In response to Ezra’s third suggestion: How do we expand opportunities for creativity like dance, music, and art? How will these things be considered “curricular” rather than “extracurricular” activities? My chief concern is that they never will be until things like dance, music, and art are appropriately appreciated in the broader culture. I don’t want to wax philosophical, nor do I want to simply eschew technology, but think for a moment about the last time that you enjoyed dance, music, and art. My guess? It was on your iPhone or on your laptop. It was an ear-budded, individual experience with a medium that truncated and then mediated the experience to a tiny screen. When was the last time you lingered in a museum or attended the symphony? If monetizing something is our society’s way of attaching value to it, then we should get serious about buying $30 ballet tickets instead of only listening to Pandora. We don’t create art anymore; we consume it. What is it about our broader cultural narrative that needs adjusting if we are indeed going to be celebrating dance, music, and art again?

Moral/Ethical Values

I am not suggesting that moral/ethical values are detached from cultural values, but I had to organize this response somehow. I am all about reinvigorating a deep appreciation for values like freedom, liberty, justice, and equal opportunity (what Ezra calls pan-American values). Ezra talks about re-engaging a healthy fear of totalitarianism, and cites present apathy as a social cancer. Ezra rightly identifies the symptoms and conditions. My concern though, is that, unwittingly, his solution might involve embracing a totalitarianism of a different kind. It might be softer, blander and gentler, but it could become all-controlling nonetheless!

I am talking about a totalitarianism that puts creativity, ingenuity, morality/ethics, values, etc., solely into the political domain. (And please don’t sidestep this comment by painting it as a small government vs. big government observation. We all know that the government doesn’t shrink and grow with every administration. It always grows—the emphases and expenditures are merely different.) The real problem is that we have unduly coupled the town square with the political sphere and now, every conversation about anything or every solution to a problem is now cast as a political one (see James Davison Hunter’s work, “To Change the World”). Don’t believe me? What is the first thing you think about when you check a newsfeed, visit a website, or tune into a news outlet? You think to yourself: What is the political slant of this station, site, or journalist?

How does this effect the public conversation? Well, as a minister I am asked to check my religious values at the door and leave my spiritual life at home so I can engage in appropriate “values” conversations that must remain utterly objective and completely detached from any sort of religious ideology. The problem? Well, first, this is impossible to do (Who is completely objective? Who is non-ideological?), and second, this notion is simply back-handed totalitarianism. What we choose to value originates from a political lever (a vote, a lobbyist, a politician, a law, etc.) and how we express those values is then mediated through political mechanisms. This is totalitarianism! Sure, it might be democratic totalitarianism, but it still insists that the creator and purveyor of values/ethics is the state.

If values like freedom, liberty, and equal opportunity are only attached to current political ideologies and lack any sort of transcendent rootedness, then they will not be able to flourish in their own right. They will morph and change on the whim of the majority. It is no surprise that we are apathetic and that this apathy is a cancer on society (as Ezra notes)! To be truly pluralistic as a society is to recognize the necessary and important place of religion in the broader cultural conversation. I am tired of “values” training in public schools being nothing more than Trojan Horses of political import (perhaps we could call them Lobby Horses). Let us reinvigorate transcendent and ubiquitous values by enhancing an awareness and appreciation of world religions and the central role that faith in god plays in 90% of our world’s human inhabitants. What could “values” training look like that doesn’t merely see the state as final arbiter of what is good and bad?


Lastly, where are the parents in Ezra’s analysis?  What role should parents play?  I believe that parents set the tone for education, values, creativity and enthusiasm. Is Ezra letting parents off the hook? Can we rely on parents to be engaged with their children? Can we get parents more enfranchised in the process? I recognize that these questions might paint me into the corner as the traditional, family values guy (though I am actually more liberal than you might think—see, there you go again—making everything political!). But when a very public and political figure slips up and says that a stay at home mother of five has “never worked a day in her life,” it is appropriate to ask the question, “Is actively parenting our children a value in this country anymore?” Or, do we outsource parenting much like we do mowing the lawn or filing taxes?

In summary, I’m energized by this discussion and I believe Ezra has opened the conversation with a compelling vision, but once the initial sheen of his ideas wears off, I’m left with some concerns about how we might actually get to his shining city on the hill.

Now, we’d love to hear your comments on this topic!