Education Opinion

The Future of Education Reform - Lessons Learned at SXSWedu

By Beth Holland — March 13, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

According to recent World Economic Forum reports, we have entered into a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Unlike previous eras, this one promises to move at an exponential pace impacting every sector and industry with an impending influx of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. But for the most part, education has remained unchanged despite the rise of technology and the dawn of the computer revolution. However, our industrial era education system will neither be able to withstand nor adequately prepare our students for this new revolution. In fact, Professor Yuval Noah Harari states in the rise of the useless class that most of what students learn today will be utterly useless by the time that they are 40.

So what does all of this mean for the system of education? Last week at SXSWedu, I attended a policy forum about K-12 education reform in the post-Obama world to gain some insights into the thoughts of different leaders. Moderated by Richard Whitmire, a reporter, author, and former editorial writer at USA Today, the panel featured John Katzman - founder of The Princeton Review, 2U, and Noodle, as well as Eva Moskowitz - the CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, and Nina Rees - President and CEO for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and former Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. Over the course of the hour-long conversation, the speakers acknowledged the numerous challenges associated with providing quality schooling to all students and highlighted the need to view education as a bipartisan issue that carries with it a sense of urgency in today’s economy.

Through an extensive conversation about charter schools and school choice, the panelists described the need to change the trajectory of education from the current focus on curriculum to one of teacher training and leadership. They expressed widespread agreement of the critical elements for schools to prepare students to be successful and to help them become good citizens. And yet, they also acknowledged that these traits do not represent what is currently measured and valued as an outcome in American education. In many ways, the panelists expressed frustration over what Harvard professor Jal Mehta describes as the adjustment of bureaucratic levers rather than the development of a 21st-century profession (Mehta, 2013).

According to the panelists, there has been tremendous investment in public schools over the past decades but with little improvement. Given the enormous structures and systems in place to support American public schools, it has proven to be extremely difficult to change the system quickly or effectively. At one point, they offered that we should view public schools in much the same way as emergency rooms. Since each student presents with a different set of “conditions,” schools should be positioned to provide the best possible curriculum to each individual child as “treatment.” This analogy furthered the conversation of creating the conditions for school choice at all socioeconomic levels and in diverse geographic locations. Rather than presenting a cohesive approach to provide every child with an exceptional opportunity to learn, the panelists seemed to perpetuate the notion of public schools as a “non-system” - a random collection of structures and events (Mehta, Theisen-Homer, Braslow, & Lopatin, 2015). However, they also agreed that this short term focus on charters and school choice could serve as a stop-gap for long-term reform.

In a recent interview with Forbes, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman described a new kind of social contract coming to society and forcing itself onto schools: one that values ongoing learning and personal development in exchange for employment. Where the current education system was designed to prepare students for a workplace that valued rule-following, efficiency, and productivity within a hierarchical bureaucracy, the economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require not only intellectual and technological skills but also noncognitive skills like empathy, perseverance, and grit - traits that characterize life-long learners. To foster these skills and develop students as learners will then require an education system that can also “adapt to change and continue to learn,” explained Moskowitz.

In this post-Obama era, the panelists argued that there needs to be a real champion of teaching and learning in every community and a quality k-12 system in every neighborhood. Whether this is accomplished through increased school choice, an influx of charter schools, the redesign of public schools, or opportunities created through blended and online learning, one point became abundantly clear during this discussion: education needs to undergo a revolution, and it needs to happen at lightning speed.


Mehta, J. (2013). From bureaucracy to profession: Remaking the educational sector for the twenty-first century. Harvard Educational Review, 83(3), 463-488. doi:10.17763/haer.83.3.kr08797621362v05

Mehta, J., Theisen-Homer, V., Braslow, D., & Lopatin, A. (2015). From quicksand to solid ground. Retrieved March 9, 2016, from http://www.totransformteaching.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/From-Quicksand-to-Solid-Ground-Building-a-Foundation-to-Support-Quality-Teaching.pdf

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.