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Technology Cannot Disrupt Education From The Top Down

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Editor’s note: Guest contributor Patrick Gibbons is a Las Vegas-based writer and researcher focusing on education policy and reform.

Computer technology has penetrated the classroom for thirty years with little impact. After hundreds of “disruptive” education startups, the best innovation in education is still the chalkboard. This isn’t the fault of the entrepreneurs, but the fault of an education system which resists innovation at every turn.

Many K-12 education technology startups target teachers and administrators by offering tools to become more productive: Lesson plan sharing, gradebooks, training tools, whiteboards and more. Devin Coldewey called them “practical” in his TechCrunch post “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” Inadvertently Touches On Sad Education And Tech Truths.” Coldewey concludes that education needs top-down reforms that utilize these practical technologies. He sincerely believes these technologies can improve teacher and administrator efficiency so the “overworked” staff can gain control of their “oversized” classes in the “pitifully insufficient” resourced schools.

Unfortunately, the top down “practical” approach won’t work for some very good reasons. Essentially, the education establishment doesn’t want to be disrupted and they will leverage the $597 billion spent annually on K-12 public education to prevent true disruption.

To innovate in education, entrepreneurs need to understand some key education statistics. The fact is, despite thirty years of technological progress and innovation, American schools provide the same results with more resources at their disposal. Between the 1959-60 and 2007-08 school year, per pupil spending grew from $2,741 (in 2009 dollar values) to $11,134—an inflation-adjusted increase of 306%. Over that same period the number of students per teacher fell from 26 to 15.3 while the number of students per school employee fell from 16.8 to 7.8.

Finally, while Devin believes public schools have “few computers” the data shows the number of pupils per computer fell from 12.1 in 1998 to 3.8 by 2005.

Despite more money, more teachers and more computers per pupil, student achievement in K-12 education has been stagnant for forty years. So why hasn’t money, teachers and technology worked?

American public education is a monopoly where the bureaucracy and administrators act more like Soviet commissars than corporate CEOs and entrepreneurs. They don’t want to be disrupted—they like things just the way they are.

Let me give you an example from my research in Clark County Nevada (you may know it as Las Vegas) home of the fifth largest school district in the nation (operating budget of over $2 billion!).

In 2009, I interviewed several local principals. One principal discussed how his purchase request for new Dell computers was denied by the district bureaucrats because the computers came with 21 inch monitors. District rules prohibited monitors larger than 19 inch—despite the fact that Dell was selling the 21 inch monitors for less than the 19 inch. There were many similar stories of frustration.

Anyone who has ever run their own business should immediately see the problem. Principals have little control over the resources in their school. Everything from teachers to textbooks is rationed by a central office commissar – sometimes approval requires the rubber stamp of several bureaucrats (up to seven in Clark County). The central control of public schools is an essential ingredient to prevent disruption—it allows the establishment to build alliances by co-opting players from the teacher union to the for-profit corporation.

The result means technology is treated as a cost, not a means to increase productivity and reduce costs. Using technology to actually increase productivity and reduce costs would mean reducing the demand for teachers, administrators and central office commissars. Co-opted for-profit corporations also prefer the larger, less competitive market because it is easier, and cheaper, to sell to the “edublob” than hundreds of thousands of autonomous and competitive schools.

In other words, you can’t sell technology that increases productivity and truly disrupts—only technology that pretends to do both.

For the disruptive education startups, forget about selling to the public school districts. Take your products to the entrepreneurial schools—private schools, virtual schools, charter schools, home school networks or even directly to the students. These schools and organizations only exist by convincing parents to enroll their children—they are hungry for ways to improve.

Finally, if you are up to the challenge, figure out ways to improve access to high quality teachers. In a country where it is almost impossible to fire bad teachers, the teacher quality gap in the United States is a major problem. According to Eric Hanushek at Stanford University a good teacher averages 1.5 years of learning gains from their students while a bad teacher averages just 0.5 year gains. In other words, a good teacher gives a 1 year learning advantage for their students compared to bad teachers. Now multiply those results over several years.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of education startups trying to attack the problem from the bottom up. Several tutoring services like WizIQ, Udemy and BlueTeach (to name a few) connect teachers with students. At the other end you have peer-to-peer education networks like Student of Fortune and OpenStudy. There are also startups mixing tutoring with adaptive-learning (the program adapts to provide lessons covering the subjects where the student is most deficient) like Grockit and Sophia Pathways. There are even specialization services like CodeAcademy which provide students a platform to develop computer programming skills.

Finally there is, Khan Academy, a free service offering more than 3,000 lessons on YouTube. Khan also integrates quizes to assess student ability and redirects students to the relevant lesson when they struggle.

Not all of these programs will succeed, but they’re all bypassing the flawed school system to offer education services whenever, wherever to whoever. This is the only way to have a chance at disrupting education.

Image credit: Getty Images/Sean MacEntee.