by Howard Stephenson

Last week in this column I discussed some of the points of Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat. America’s crisis in science and engineering was described.  This week I am writing about how this affects public education in Utah.

This is especially significant because, despite former Governor Michael Leavitt’s success in obtaining a doubling of capacity for degrees in science and engineering at Utah’s colleges and  universities, the increase in degree-seeking students has increased by only a third.  The single largest reason for this is the failure of Utah high schools to produce graduates who are qualified and inspired to seek science and engineering degrees.  I believe the biggest reason for this lack of qualified high school graduates is the fact that we have too few qualified math and science teachers in Utah high schools.  While the legislature has funded signing bonuses for attracting more qualified teachers, more needs to be done.

The Next Chapter: Disruptive Technologies

While attending a charter school conference in Minnesota last month, I viewed a DVD presentation by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christenson on disruptive technologies. This was a recording of a speech delivered in July to the Education Commission of the States which I was supposed to attend but missed due to scheduling conflicts. I was glad I finally got to see the presentation because it was just as shocking as Friedman’s book. For me Christenson’s speech is a sequel to Friedman’s Flat World.

Christenson described the historical phenomenon that occurs when new technologies catch up to a successful organization doing things the old way. He said that established organizations often find it impossible to adapt to the new technologies and are killed by those new organizations that are more efficient and more expert because they are not hampered by traditions steeped in the ways of the old technology. He used Digital as an example of such a company. Digital was a highly successful mini computer company which was incapable of adapting to the world of micro or personal computers and, in essence, viewed them as child’s toys. IBM was also a leader in mini computers. But IBM created – and funded to the hilt – a competing company to become a leader in micro computers. Because IBM adapted by creating a separate company which eventually grew up to kill the parent, IBM is around today and Digital is not.

In this context of organizations’ inability change, even when disruptive technologies threaten their future, Dr. Christenson posed three questions for public education:

1. How can we provide educational services that are tailored to each child’s needs, without incurring prohibitive cost?

2. Is there a way to improve the productivity of our teachers (more students per teacher) without impairing outcomes per student?

3. If spending more money per pupil isn’t the answer (and it appears there is some evidence for that), how can we achieve fundamental change and improvement in our public schools?

As I listened to Dr. Christenson, in the mindset of a flat world, I had a thought that the country which is perhaps our biggest competitor in science and engineering may actually become the wet nurse for America’s under-achieving students. I saw in my mind Utah students sitting down to a computer to do their math homework with a personal tutor from Bangalore India providing the immediate, interactive feedback which we have known for years can ensure math competency for nearly all students but have been unable to afford.

Our competitors may be our means of reclaiming our stature as the leader in S&E. Imagine: The teacher’s aide in your child’s classroom is bi-lingual and works for 1/5th the wage of the current teacher but lives at a standard of living above 80% of his fellow citizens. In some ways she as skilled in pedagogy and subject area as your child’s classroom teacher. Every at-risk student in Utah has personal tutors available to him. These tutors are available at a moment’s notice wherever your child is – at home, at school, at the library or grandma’s house.

Will Public Education Embrace Disruptive Technologies?

What are today’s disruptive technologies for public education? Certainly charter schools, open enrollment, tuition tax credit, online learning, home schooling, private tutoring services, and computer assisted instruction come to mind. But what other disruptions are hiding below the surface?

The public education industry in Utah has been rejecting and openly opposing disruptive technologies and they hunker down in a losing battle against change. Local School boards such as Granite refuse to streamline their schools by shutting down half-empty schools or partnering with more charter schools to fill a wing of a school with declining enrollments.

Alpine School Board persists in supporting a failed “investigations” math program while parents protest what the program is doing to their children.

Some districts are making it harder for parents to outsource high school credits to enable failing students to graduate. While parents spend millions of dollars for outside, competency-based tutoring, some high schools are rejecting the credits, ensuring a lower graduation rate saying, “The moniker of Alta High School on the diploma should mean the credits were earned here.” Credits from the nationally-recognized Utah Electronic High School are being limited, as are high school credits from other accredited providers such as BYU high school correspondence courses and tutoring from Sylvan and Oxford Learning Source. Some of these credits are disallowed unless a certain number of hours of “seat time” was spent in obtaining the proven competency.

Some local school boards seem to have lost the vision of the need for computers in schools as data is unveiled showing Utah public schools have the lowest number of computers per student among the 50 states. At the same time, a separate study shows that Utah has more computers per household than any state in the nation. Is there something we can learn from this? Should we be directing more of our schooling to home-based computers?

While the State School Board seems to be embracing the changing world, working to require local school districts to accept outside credits and greater use and availability of technology; Many of Utah’s 40 local school boards seem to be reluctant to accept change without a fight. They’re acting a lot like Digital before its demise.  Increasingly, public education is becoming more and more irrelevant.

I predict we are all about to be disrupted when it comes to how we deliver education, whether we like it or not.

I, for one, welcome it.