Education innovation | Citizen | Indy Week

Ye Olde Archives » Citizen

Education innovation

In the future, schools will be more creative ... won't they?

"What if," our old friend Richard Florida asked, in his chosen role as provocateur of forbidden discussion--"what if" we just stopped building more school buildings? Ohmigod. That's not the question we needed to hear in Wake County circa 2006, is it? With 20 percent of our kids in trailers, and a school bond issue on tap this fall that could top $1billion?

Or is it?

"The high school system is completely dysfunctional," says Richard Florida. "We inherited this factory for education." - PHOTO BY ART HOWARD
  • Photo by Art Howard
  • "The high school system is completely dysfunctional," says Richard Florida. "We inherited this factory for education."

Florida, the celebrated public-policy professor who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, and recently followed with The Flight of the Creative Class (both covered previously in the Indy by the creative Fiona Morgan), was in Raleigh last week--being provocative--to help NCSU christen its new William & Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, out there on the new Centennial Campus.

In the spirit of education innovation, Florida declared American education to be pretty much bankrupt, and the reason for a growing "talent gap" that threatens to bring our economy down faster than any budget gap or trade gap ever could.

And just in case Florida failed to provoke, NCSU also invited billionaire SAS founder Jim Goodnight, whose dukes were up virtually from the moment he got the microphone. "The whole American K-12 system is just flat broken," he began--and that was his cheeriest note. Goodnight, who financed Cary Academy to show off how tech and education should go together, just can't believe that any teachers still stand in front of a blackboard, talking at their students, without so much as a microprocessor to help them get the kids' attention.

"The whole American K-12 system is just flat broken," says SAS founder Jim Goodnight, who financed Cary Academy to show off how tech and education can go together. - PHOTO BY ART HOWARD
  • Photo by Art Howard
  • "The whole American K-12 system is just flat broken," says SAS founder Jim Goodnight, who financed Cary Academy to show off how tech and education can go together.

In this company, State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson might've been the foil, except that she didn't feel much like defending the status quo, either. How could she, when four in 10 of the students who start high school in North Carolina drop out before finishing it? Instead, she imagined the classroom of the future looking more like a TV studio, with the teacher(s) directing their students' attention and learning right along with them.

I must say, talk like this took me back.

Back to the future as seen in 1999, when the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado provoked the last great public conversation about everything that's wrong with the "factory model" of American education. Back to an old file I called "Abolish High School."

"High schools haven't changed," read one headline in the file, on a clip from The New York Times (May 2, 1999). "But the world has." Another NYT piece (Oct. 10, 1999), a review of a book titled The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager by Thomas Hine, was headlined, "Oh, Grow Up." In it, Leon Botstein, the president then and now of New York's Bard College, called high school "destructive to both intellectual and social maturation," and said it should be replaced by "more serious and varied opportunities for education and training."

Time to dust off that file.

Because things still haven't changed.

Take sex education, for example. As I recall, the reason I started the file, pre-Columbine, was the refusal of most North Carolina high schools to teach, or even talk about, sex. Why? Because "the kids" might "get ideas"--and we wouldn't that! No ideas, please, while you're in high school.

Seven years later, we still don't teach sex ed--the only difference is, homosexuality is now a point of emphasis for what we don't talk about.

By the way, what's the one subject teenagers are absolutely guaranteed to be interested in? That's right: sex.

Or take school newspapers. Do high-school journalists have First Amendment rights? No, of course they don't. They're kids. We couldn't possibly expect them to publish responsible journalism--and be held responsible for it--since they are by definition irresponsible.

And so it goes. Too much of what goes on in high school consists of ... we repress, you be quiet, because you're still children, and we're the adults.

Even when the children are 18 and old enough to fight a war.

Today: Industrial strength

So what's wrong with this picture? Only everything, in Florida's view, because it's a regimentation model designed for the industrial age, when the goal was to "pump out stuff" and most people could find remunerative work if they merely knew how to follow management's orders.

But today, China makes the "stuff," and even in the high-tech sector that was supposed to replace our lost factory work, jobs for the order-followers among us are migrating rapidly from America to the cheaper (albeit increasingly "well-trained") labor markets of India and South Asia.

Thus, success in the world economy today depends not on our ability to follow orders, according to Florida's argument, but rather on our willingness to break the mold, "let it rip," and create something of value that's new.

Already, he went on, some one-third of American jobs are creative in this basic sense, whether in the sciences, the arts, entertainment or in the service and professional fields. What's more, these "creative-class jobs" constitute the fastest-growing sector of our economy--in fact, he said, it's growing too fast for our educational system, which isn't turning out creative talent fast enough to fill all the available jobs.

Thus, we're forced to import "creatives," especially engineers and scientists, Florida said. But that's a pipeline their home-countries are starting to get serious about shutting off (albeit not before they've had a chance to study at a good U.S. university) even as they get serious about improving their own educational systems.

The shame of it is, Florida said, that "every single human being is creative," if allowed to be--no, if encouraged to be. But the rigidity of our school system discourages too many, and especially too many of those who are disadvantaged from the start or whose natural creativity is judged to be out of step with the school regime.

That, or it bores them stiff.

He was bored, Florida said. "I hated school. But I loved to learn." And while he survived it (by playing rock 'n' roll), the "wasted 60 percent" who don't survive constitute a growing economic crisis for our country--followers' jobs either won't exist or won't pay enough to support them.

"The high school system is completely dysfunctional," said Florida. "We've got to say it: We inherited this factory for education, [and] we've got to stop thinking that we can build our economy on 40 percent of us ... plus immigrants."

The Future: Picture-perfect?

So could we really just stop building new high schools, as Florida suggested (provocatively) and rearrange the ones we have to serve more of our kids? Before you answer, consider Goodnight's passion, which is that adding technology to every classroom would extend the reach of good teaching, engage more students and be a whole lot more efficient--and effective--than lectures and blackboards.

Why can't every student have a hand-held computer? Goodnight asked. They all have some version of a Game Boy--and they all know how to play them, too.

Atkinson, our top state school official, agreed--to a point. Kids complain when a test is too hard, she added, and when a game is too easy. Computer games and "distance learning" via TV--with teachers on-screen from a remote site or on disc--can spice up classes and also help to administer tests not on the teacher's schedule, but on the student's, when she's ready. "Plug in and show," she called it.

"Plug in and show" is the way State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson describes using compter games and distance learning to spice up classes. - PHOTO BY ART HOWARD
  • Photo by Art Howard
  • "Plug in and show" is the way State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson describes using compter games and distance learning to spice up classes.

On the other hand, Atkinson noted that 83,000 students in North Carolina speak English as a second language; and in our 10 poorest counties, 75 percent of the children qualify for "free and reduced lunches"--which means their families are poor.

By and large, then, these children need extra--and sustained--help in school. And not from a teacher on TV, but from one who's sitting beside them.

Listening to these three, it was easy to imagine a school of the future where students could: be in attendance less and do more work from home or in the community (museums, libraries, internships); do rote work less, "problem-solving and decision-making" more; learn from a variety of adult "mentors," some of whom are full-time teachers, but not all; move at their own (presumably swifter) pace more of the time and at someone else's pace less; and most of all, pursue their own interests more, dog-eared textbooks less.

Most of all, when they're ready for college--meaning ready for the intellectual challenge of thinking for themselves--they go to college. That is, a university, or a community college, or an online college, or some combination thereof; and maybe some of their college classes are in a school building that also has little kids in it, or is a middle school, or is in what we used to call a high school before--thankfully--we abolished high school. We'd need fewer buildings for sure. No doubt about it.

And yet, we wouldn't have "less" school for anyone--notice--because we could start everyone at age 4 and expect them all to finish secondary-level work at a minimum. Only we'd call it prep school, and kids would understand that the quicker they mastered the basics, the sooner they could move on to something interesting--whether college, or a job, or maybe both.

I've had this idea for a long time, as has Florida, as has Leon Botstein, as have a lot of people--it certainly didn't originate with me, anyway.

And there're only two problems with executing it. One, how do we move the kids around from place to place in our cities and towns? They can't walk--too many four-lanes--and up to age 18 or so, we don't want them driving either, even if they own a car. And the parents don't want to be chauffeuring them.

We'd need a heckuva public transit system, wouldn't we?

In the absence of same, we use mass delivery of students to a limited supply of big schools in isolated locations--so big and so isolated that the absence of regimentation would be mean chaos.

Another huge problem, if we could solve that first one, would be getting affluent taxpayers to put extra money into the education of poor kids once their kids are freed from the burden of attending school with them.

Maybe in some educational nirvana that would happen. It doesn't happen in America, where an integrated school district like Wake County's is the exception, and the segregation of schools by race and/or income is the rule.

I never could solve either one of those problems, which is why my "Abolish High School" file remains a work-in-progress. And why, as near as I can tell, our schools look about the same today as they did when I attended them, back in the 20th century.

Florida's right, and Goodnight, too. Our education system is broken. But the political will to fix it--really fix it--is broken worse. And until it's repaired, I'm afraid that more buildings is the best we can do. x


Send your ideas for education innovation to: Citizen, c/o

Add a comment