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Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Veneer of Education

How many superheroes will it take to fix our nation’s public education system? 3,500,000. This is roughly the number of teachers we need to educate the 50M children in K-12 public education. The task of every teacher—create engaging lessons that speak to the diversity of learners in a given class of say 20 students—is a heroic one. We don’t have enough of these superheroes.  

Most policy makers will tell you that we can solve the problem of a stagnant and too often failing public education system by recruiting and retaining great teachers, and drastically increasing their compensation.  A highly effective teacher in every classroom moves the needle. This is absolutely true. But what human capital strategy can scale that to the 3.5M teachers needed in the roughly 100,000 schools in America? None can. 

The veneer of education that I see propagated by most education officials is the belief that somehow we can create all of these superheroes to fill our classrooms. This seems idealistic at best. There's no way to know how to manufacture superhero teachers, especially in districts that are reeling economically.  

The idea that we can turn every mediocre teacher into a great teacher is like saying there's a professional athlete in each one of us who will emerge if we only respect, pay and encourage that inner greatness. You and I are probably never going to throw a 90-mile an hour fastball no matter how much coaching we get or how much you pay us to practice. 

General Electric, arguably the greatest human talent corporation in the world, with all of its market incentives could not produce a great manager for every 25 employees in every corner of the country who could lead a different 25 employees every year across the same goal using only one manual to get there. The very best human capital organizations with all the financial incentives the market can offer cannot make 100% of their employees top performers.  

So the real question is how do we create a scalable superhero-making machine?

We can’t. 

Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary Waiting for Superman suggests that we don't have enough superheroes to leap over the excessively tall buildings of education mediocrity and speeding bullets of international competition our children face daily. Our struggle right now is not for global competitiveness but global relevancy. No human capital strategy in any sphere of society can rapidly scale excellence—the kind of excellence our children deserve—to the level of 3,500,000 people across the country.  

But there is hope. The DNA of any great teacher is their ability to personally engage each student where they are and move them through a learning trajectory that taps into the student’s intrinsic motivation, learning style and capacity. This kind of x-ray vision that peers into the unique learning strengths of a student gets infinitely harder to manage and track as you add more students into a classroom and virtually impossible for a single teacher over a class of 20+ students.   

We can, however, bring the powerful attributes of learning management systems that engage learning online, one student at a time, while simultaneously arming teachers with data on how their students best learn so that they can focus more on the power that only their physical presence can provide. We can leverage technology in the classroom to finally realize the ideals of our egalitarian system wherein every student excels because every teacher is powerfully equipped to connect with each and every student’s learning needs.

This technology when placed in the hands of teachers willing to facilitate students’ learning by moving solely from up-front lecturing to include more side-by-side facilitation, can stimulate the kinds of exponential leaps in student achievement that we have longed believed possible but have not been able to achieve in our country.  

The country that incubated Apple, Google and Facebook must now turn those same scaling talents and technology to the classroom. We must move past the perpetuated veneer of the politicians who seem content to fumble inside a broken model of education. It is time to equip the 3,500,000 Clark Kents already in classrooms with technology we are already using to make other industries from commerce to news to hopefully education, fly.

Do you agree that technology is the key to a better education system? If you saw Waiting for Superman, where do you think Guggenheim got it right/wrong?


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