Education is how we transfer knowledge, skill, and wisdom from one generation to the next. But as families trend toward fewer children, the burden of an growing human knowledge base must be transferred to an ever fewer number of individuals. Maximizing the transfer of knowledge, therefore, is increasingly vital to sustaining civilization itself. But the schools of today are bound to the past. Education vouchers and other innovations, may offer a path toward freeing them.
Bound in the Past
There is a saying, it’s easier to land on Mars than it is to change the education system. When it comes to schooling, there are many stakeholders: parents, teachers, unions, local districts, state legislatures…etc. Change comes slowly, if at all. The consequence is that education today looks very much as it did in the early 20th Century. This fact should be terrifying.
It is this bureaucratic inertia that allows summer vacations to continue, despite mountains of evidence that students forget over the summer what they learned in the prior year. Students still shuttle from classroom to classroom, subject to subject, as if they were on an assembly line. Grade levels are based on age, not skill, competency, or merit. Education in the era of the Model T, while we live in the age of Tesla.
A Better Way
The ideal education system would allow students to pass grades through merit, not age. And it would adapt, perhaps using AI, to each individual student’s learning style and preferences. It would also make learning fun and interactive, where possible. Competency based, flexible, and engaging. We have the technology to do this today, all that stands in the way is bureaucracy and a lack of imagination.
A voucher system may provide a key piece of the puzzle. School vouchers are a simple concept. Every child of school age receives a voucher from the government that is worth a set amount of tuition. Parents/students can use that voucher at the school of their choice. They are no longer bound to the whims of arbitrary district borders.
School choice forces quasi competition between schools for students’ vouchers. Private schools would emerge that offer unique teaching methods, and perhaps schools would specialize, with some focusing on STEM fields, and others on the humanities/soft sciences. Vouchers are the 21st Century sword that can cut schools free of the red tape of the 20th.
Ideally, we would want a voucher system that doesn’t allow for tuition top-ups, to maintain student equality. Strong anti-discimation laws would prevent school from discriminating, and vouchers could not be used at religious institutions.
From Kindergarten though middle school, the government would set core competencies, measured by standardized testing, to ensure all students are well-rounded in what they learn. Schools, however, would have broad authority in how they taught these core competencies. At the high school level, schools would be given broader room to specialize in what they teach as well.
School vouchers are not a new idea. The concept has been tested before. But there is tremendous variance in how such systems are designed. So do vouchers work? Real world data are encouraging, but admittedly, not mind-blowing.
A comprehensive review in the National Bureau of Economic Research of numerous studies on vouchers from India, to the US, to Sweden, found no systematic improvement in student outcomes. Nonetheless, in some setting, certain groups showed significant improvements. The literature also suggests that the use of vouchers improve the parallel public school system, and the data suggests there are generally no negative effects on student outcomes when a voucher system is adopted.
In other words, a voucher system results in a net benefit for some students, without any corresponding negative effects. More research is needed to help optimize the design of future school vouchers. But this alone seems not enough. We need a spark of innovation in this stagnant sector.
In accordance with my prior work on patent buyouts, the government should offer a bounty, perhaps a patent buyout or a cash prize, for anyone who can develop a tool that substantially improves student learning outcomes. Such a tool, perhaps a laptop equipped with AI, could utilize algorithms to teach student’s in the most effective way possible. It would need to be engaging and adapt to each student, much like our social media and gaming already adapts to the individual.
Once developed and demonstrated, the winner(s) would be paid the bounty, and the government would open-source the technology. Open-sourcing would make it affordable, and open it to further innovation by the fledgling private school system, that would now be free enough to take full advantage of the new technology.
The transfer of knowledge to the next generation is critical to maintaining the light of human consciousness. The more effectively we can do that, the brighter the future will be.