Saul Kaplan: Education Rant

“Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire” W.B. Yeats

Excuse the rant but I am outraged by the state of the U.S. education system. We have let the pilot light go out and we are failing our youth. Particularly egregious is the way we are failing our urban youth.

We must refocus our national and regional innovation conversation on how to solve real world problems. Job number one is to design a better education system that lights a fire for every youth, creating lifelong passionate learners. It is time to move beyond public policy debates and institutional rugby scrums to try new solutions. What we are doing now isn’t working, and far too much of the federal stimulus investment in education is being spent to sustain the current system.

A report last year from the nonprofit network America’s Promise Alliance showed that 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year. Only about half of the students served by school systems in the nation’s 50 largest cities graduate from high school. The U.S. public education system, especially in the country’s urban centers, must be transformed.

Only about 40 percent of the U.S. adult population earns a college degree. That may have been fine in the 20th century when an industrial economy supplied good jobs to those without post-secondary education. It is not fine today when a college degree is a necessity for a good job.

Saul KaplanOur education system was built for the 20th century.

Everyone loves to point fingers at other players in the system as the cause of the problem. Observing our education system today is like watching an intense rugby scrum that is moving in slow motion hoping the ball will pop out. We have finger pointing and incessant public policy debates galore. We love to admire the problems: It’s the unions that are getting in the way. Teachers are resisting change in the classroom. Administrators don’t understand what is going on in the classroom. Parents are not engaged. Public policy makers can’t make up their minds. If only private sector companies were more engaged. Students are unruly, undisciplined and disrespectful. Everyone gets blamed and nothing changes.

The simple idea of “lighting a fire” expressed in Yeat’s quote says it all for me. Teaching is an important means to an end. Creating passionate lifelong learners is the objective of education. Content, subjects, jobs and requirements, will all change over time. The pace of change is accelerating and the half-life for assumptions and usable knowledge is decreasing. It has become a lifelong challenge to stay relevant. The only thing that is sustainable is a fire inside to keep learning.

The objective of education is to light a fire for learning in every single youth. When the pilot light is on, everything else is possible. For starters, let’s recognize that individuals have different learning styles. One-size industrial education models are not working and must be transformed. We have the enabling technology available today to create and scale an education system that provides access to killer content and experiential learning opportunities tailored to individual learning styles for every student. It is time to demonstrate that we can and will change our education system. Our country’s youth is waiting.

We need actionable platforms to enable real world experimentation for new education systems and solutions. We need to bring the voice of the student and student experience directly into the education innovation conversation. And we must create a purposeful network of innovators motivated to explore and test new system solutions. Join the conversation. The water is fine.

Let’s reignite the pilot light and demonstrate that there is a better way to light a fire for life long learning in every youth.

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