Rethinking Education for the 21st Century
Unlocking new generations' potential
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 a growing human knowledge base must be transferred to an ever fewer number of individuals. Maximizing this transfer, therefore, is increasingly vital to sustaining civilization itself. But the education systems of today are shackled to the past. Education vouchers and other innovations may offer a path toward freeing them.
Shackled to 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, government…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 over the summer, students forget much of what they learned in the prior year, requiring weeks of reteaching. 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.
Breaking the Shackles
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 is what is needed. We have the technology to do this today, all that stands in the way is bureaucracy and perhaps 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 a kind of quasi-competition between schools for 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 could be the 21st Century sword that can cut schools free of the red tape of the 20th.
From Kindergarten through 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.
School vouchers are not a new idea, but there is tremendous variance in how such systems are designed. This makes studying their effects exceedingly difficult. 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 settings, certain groups of students showed significant improvements. The literature also suggests that the use of vouchers improves the parallel public school system. Crucially, however, the data suggests there are generally no negative effects on student outcomes when a voucher system is adopted.
In other words, at best, a voucher system results in a net benefit for some students, at worst, there is no benefit, but no serious negative consequences either. Additionally, there is some data to suggest that vouchers may reduce the cost of education, making them more cost-effective.
Meta-analysis of voucher program literature found evidence of reductions in the cost. For example, the cost per student between vouchers and public funding was $483 versus $1,963 for Delhi, India, $4,817 versus $11,846 for Milwaukee, WI, and $5,456 versus $10,853 for Louisiana. Some of this is due to most private schools not providing bussing/transportation, but there is an argument to be made that private schools use financial resources more efficiently.
More research, clearly, is needed. Vouchers are a concept that is well suited to my proposed experimental pilot zones. Such research could help optimize the design of future school voucher programs.
A Spark of Innovation
Looking beyond, in accordance with my prior work on patent buyouts, the government could 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 help teach students in the most effective way possible. Lessons would need to be engaging and adapt to each student, much like our social media and gaming already adapts to individual preferences.
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, now free from 20th-century shackles.