Risky Business

Education Reform has been a long way in coming to American schools. Unfortunately almost nobody seems to realize that the problem with education may just be the schools. We try to continue doing what we have always been doing for better than two centuries and expecting better results. It may be time to try something new that gets at education.

This month marked the 35 year anniversary of “A Nation At Risk.” This landmark report commissioned by President Ronald Reagan raged on about the shortcomings of American schools and predicted that if improvement was not forthcoming, the United States would be in grave danger of falling behind as a leader of the free world. Yet it has hardly gone unnoticed that American businesses are still leading the world in productivity and creativity, even as manufacturing has drifted across the Pacific Ocean and North America imports goods across both the Atlantic and Pacific. The value of American companies continues to break all-time records. Perhaps the cries of risk were a bit too loud.

All these years later it is hard to refute that our country is struggling with what it is and what it should become. There are forces that cannot be controlled by government regulations, more taxes and spending, or any of myriad ideologies that cross a spectrum from reactionary to wide eyed progressive.

Education technology (aka EdTech) has been touted since the early 1990s as the savior for education. It may be but it is still a long way from making any real inroads in changing education. Ever since the Apple Macintosh introduced HyperCard there has been plenty of hype for a remedy to education’s ills. The trouble may be that too much hype is hand-waving and not enough real effort to make something that makes a difference. MakerSpaces could make a difference.

MakerSpaces are, unfortunately, not compatible with schools. A few venturesome librarians are creating spaces in their schools where students can freely gain access to equipment for making everything from woodwork to wild music. The big deal spurring on these MakerSpaces has been the 3-D Printers. Unfortunately even in the hands of the brightest students there is a tendency to make gee-whiz gadgets using passed down software. Students and some parents get a quick kick and then say “So what?” MakerSpaces are hardly making a difference worthy of notice.

A  few maker spaces are avoiding schools and setting up shop in commercial spacers with commercial goals in mind. Unfortunately these entities are not gaining any traction with education. It may well be that for education to find new direction it may be essential to start viable businesses. There is certainly plenty of revenue floating  and bobbing about the education space; some estimates being, in aggregate, in excess of a trillion dollars. It is time to refocus the revenue in education.

The risky part of redirection is that some good things can be destroyed in the process. Creative destruction is not very predictable. New products and new services are the result of energizing a business environment with ideas. Taking Great Ideas Forward may demand the formation of a business. Business models, of course, demand revenue in excess of expense.

There is an expectation that education should be free and maintained by a not-for-profit organization. The Public Schools are, of course, a magnificent extension of this ideal. But public schools are not really free financially to educationally. The financial costs of education are borne with strings, really thick cables, attached. The “public” it is claimed demands accountability. It may be time to ask who the “public” really is. One thing it is is fuzzy. The public is an amalgam of individuals, organizations, religious organizations, businesses that are small companies and large corporations. Governance of education is supposed to be democratic or represent a democratic ideal. It doesn’t.

The reality of public education is that it is entrenched as a part of society. A few philosophers, like John Dewey, have provided enormous influence emphasizing democracy and practicality as worthwhile aspirations for education.. The democratic ideas are often mixed and mixed up when they focus on equality. The assumption of equality is really an aspiration, but it is hardly consistent with reality. The reality is that individuals are different, that is DIFFERENT.

Schools are not built to accommodate individual differences. The operating assumption is that public schools will support the development of a workforce well attuned to the needs of employers. It is the students who are to be the beneficiaries as employers take, even exploit, their workers’ skills to expand profit.

It is a nearly unquestioned assumption that robotics is beneficial across any aspect of the economy. Yet while robots are removing jobs, educators are expected to advance the capacity of workers to run the robots. It is true that those who design, install and run the robots are paid well. It is also true that those who are displaced by robots are not paid at all directly by the owner of the robots. Even the unemployment insurance that may have been coercively “purchased” by an employer to compensate laid off employees is hardly able to fully absorb the cost burden afforded the employees. The insurance amounts to a subsidy to the employer; even as the laid off workers are accused of being “freeloaders.” The obligation of family as well as the burden of inadequate or rusty basic language and math skills leave laid off workers in limbo to advance through more education.

The work of teachers is being increasingly aided by artificial intelligence or AI. A huge key is assessment. One dimension is adaptive assessments. These are computer administered tests that adapt to the responses and capabilities of students or learners. We are in a very early stage of education reform and the application of assessments that are untethered from human intervention is scary indeed; risky business to say the least. Humans are not very good at delivering the bad news of inadequate achievement. A human judge can easily and efficiently be wholly insensitive the feelings of another human being. Respect may not seem warranted in some cases, but a democratic ideal is respect for the dignity of everyone. We are in very risky territory whenever we give up capacity to deny respect. Who is accountable for the lifelong consequences of humiliation.

When the humiliated become antisocial it is highly random with no choices involved. Alienation is not a path to any reform whether for schools or for society. That is a very risky business.