This weekend I watched the webcast of Stanford University’s Education Nation 2.0: Redefining K-12 Education in America, Before It Redefines Us. Moderated by Charlie Rose, the panel consisted of Stanford President John Hennessy, Dean of Stanford’s School of Education Claude Steele, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, Bellwether Education Partners founder Kim Smith, Khan Academy founder Salman Khan, and Netflix founder and educational philanthropist Reed Hastings. Some were Stanford alumni (it was Reunion Homecoming Weekend), and some were not, but all were critical thinkers and experts in education.
The roundtable did not discuss independent schooling; instead, the questions focused on public schooling, with an emphasis on the charter movement. So why was I watching? As Booker said, our greatest national security threat is the dumbing down of our population and the lack of opportunities for our young people. Our society is an interdependent one: it does matter how all of our children are educated, not just the 400 students at Marin Academy and institutions like MA. Hennessy talked about the irony of how America has the best higher education system in the world, and yet the K-12 system is failing so many of our young people.
The panelists emphasized what many Americans are already thinking: we need to think about education in a new way, and engage everyone. Smith said that we’re at an inflection point: our public educational system has not changed much in the last 100 years, yet much of the rest of society has. Now is the time for change.
So what can we do? Several panelists discussed the role of the charter movement, and how these smaller-scale schools can be more nimble in experimenting with different ways to educate children. KIPP charter schools and Rocketship Education in San Jose were mentioned as shining examples of what is possible; Booker spoke of expanding “islands of excellence” to “hemispheres of hope.” Hennessy emphasized the need to really professionalize teachers: training, paying, and treating teachers right in order to get the top college graduates to enter the field of education. Others spoke of the importance of school culture, the detrimental effects of the glut of standardized testing, and the involvement of parents.
What is most exciting, however, is the possibility of technology. Given the makeup of the panel, it wasn’t surprising that the conversation moved in this direction. Khan gave a short history of the founding Khan Academy five years ago. One student recently told Khan that he needed to watch one instructional video 30 times before he understood the concept. Most teachers or tutors wouldn’t have the time (or the patience) to teach the same lesson that many times, yet we know kids learn differently. We can’t afford individualized education with people, but what if we could through software, if the programs were engaging, interactive, and appropriate?
If technology is the answer, what about teachers? Hastings explained how software could be used for rote learning so teachers could do the interesting stuff: discussing, collaborating, brainstorming, problem solving. Just as there are different learning styles, there are different teaching style. Technology could enable teachers to explore various ways of presenting subjects in exciting and innovative ways. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s a thrilling possibility for the future. What is crucial, as Steel mentioned, is the ability to innovate and explore. This is a luxury at places like Marin Academy, and needs to become a reality in all public schools—not just charters.
What are we at Marin Academy doing for the public school system? As Booker said, it’s time for all Americans to stop treating education as a spectator sport, and stop waiting for the government to figure the problem out. As this discussion came in the wake of our Conference on Democracy, I thought of the previous two days of presentations and discussions. Our students are deeply concerned about the future of our nation and our world. What impressed me the most about this year’s conference were their questions: all nine sessions had wonderful questions from student audience members, many of whom were not deeply familiar with the subject matter at hand. As our students become the leaders of tomorrow, the future of the educational system will be in their generation’s hands. And we’re preparing them for it.
At an admissions coffee in San Francisco this week, I had the opportunity to talk about MA alongside some of our alumni. Without any prompting from me, they put it perfectly: there is a sense of innovation and responsibility implicit in our curriculum. Our students learn how to be problem solvers while bringing people together, and their commitment to others isn’t going to stop after they graduate. We don’t know what they will do after MA, but we know what they are capable of.
Towards the end of the talk, Booker said that everyone is a philanthropist, whether you give of your spirit, your time, or money. We owe every child a great education and the opportunity to succeed, and hope that our students will work hard with us to make this happen.