Monday, July 5, 2010

Innovation in Public Education--What is the most needed resource? Financial Capital or Human Capital?

I have been listening and engaging in conversations about public education for more than twenty years.  Two of the dominant themes of these conversations are the need to improve the system and the need for more money to implement improvements.

I have learned that the argument about the need for more money for public education is much like culture war arguments.  Just as we will never resolve culture war issues like abortion or gun use, we will never determine when public education has been adequately financed. (By the way, the funding argument has been employed since the Great Depression.)

Much like culture war issues, the funding issue distracts us from the bigger challenge--how to innovate so that all children learn what they need to survive as individuals and as productive citizens in our society.

Rather than  investing resources in the funding argument, I think we need to turn our energies toward learning how to make school relevant and meaningful; how to sustain the system; how to provide opportunities for children to learn 21st century skills (which, by the way, the 21st century is already ten years old).

Recently I had a conversation with a good friend about the state of public education. She works very hard and firmly believes that the public education system in Minnesota needs more financial resources.  She was having a down day because Minnesota had just released the results of the state test and, once again, little progress had been made.

I said that I thought the answer to the problem might be found in charter schools; that we need to radically restructure time if we intend to provide students with experiences that are relevant to their lives today and that charter schools provide a way around the structures--parents, teachers, communities--who don't want to change.  My friend argued that she was not willing to lose a generation of children  because the system cannot meet their needs. Implicit in her argument was the notion that charter schools create greater inequalities among students as motivated parents will enroll their children in charter schools that provide quality programs, leaving students with greater needs behind in the public schools.  She firmly believes that if public schools were given adequate funding, the system could meet the needs of all children.

I, too, see the problem as one of resources, but not financial resources.  We need to employ human capital if we expect to meet the needs of today's students.  I want to see us employ radically new methods of engaging with students--one rooted in 21st century technology, not the 19th century industrial model.

In this TED talk, Charles Leadbeater: Education innovation in the slums describes radical forms of education--all of which are found in some of the poorest communities in the world.  And this informal, disruptive new kind of school, he says, is what all schools need to become.  We need to look at these models to learn how we might transform public education in the United States.  

Improving the current system is not the answer.  Rather than incremental innovation, the system needs disruptive innovation, change the brings a whole new way of doing things to public education.  Rather than focusing on the money, we need to think about the structure.  We need to reinvent public education.  If we cannot transform the system from the inside, then we need to employ external models to do the work for us.

I just want to see it happen.  If the public system can do it--Great.  If it can't--I am ready to embrace what works, wherever it comes from.  I, too, hate to see us waste another generation of students.

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