College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Five Steps to Reboot Schools

By Cameron Evans — October 29, 2013 5 min read

Are we really preparing our students for success in the modern world? The data say no.

Two-thirds of United States 4th graders read below grade level, and the weakest ones are falling further behind, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. In a 2011 report, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 16 percent of children who are not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time. And when we see business leaders questioning recent college graduates’ competencies, such as the value of their diplomas and grade point averages, something’s clearly wrong.

Worse still, the skills students acquire in school may not even translate to the modern workplace. According to findings from the market research firm International Data Corp., or IDC, that identify and analyze the skills required for the best jobs of the future, “While education reform is high on the agenda of many political leaders and aspirants, academic experts, and even many corporate leaders and entertainment icons, there remains debate regarding the relevance and aspirations of school requirements.”

After years of accumulating performance deferments and declining success rates, it’s time to hit the reset button. Schools are investing heavily in gadgets and devices without necessarily giving thought to reform through transformative smart models and learning tools. Digitizing analog materials and processes is not enough.


This is not a radical idea. In my travels across our great nation, I have yet to meet a single educator in pre-K-12 or higher education who, given the opportunity to transform the current education system, would hang onto the status quo. I’m hardly the first to make this observation.

To start fresh, the technology industry must own up to its culpability in underserving our nation’s schools and spell out what we will do to make things better. We’ve seen technological breakthroughs in virtually every industry—from “big data” transforming weather predictions to gaming accessories protecting firefighters’ lives. We can, we must, drive this kind of breakthrough for students, too. We need to help public schools move from our current one-size-fits-all approach to personalized learning systems enabled by today’s technology.

Five fundamental steps are required to incite the transformation of education technology and thus truly secure technology’s role in better preparing our students for success.

First, we need to make education technology easier to use. Our teaching and learning products should be as intuitive and enjoyable as the phones in our pockets. From gaming to traditional presentation software, when we give teachers license to weave these tools into the curriculum, they become channels of creativity, enhancing the learning process and enabling a deeper mastery of content.

Second, the data collected about students should be applied for the benefit of students, even for real-time use. For example, what if we took the research from big-budget video games, digital commerce, and search engines, and applied it to our schools in order to help educators and students? In the gaming world, we can already determine with 10 plays of the Microsoft Xbox video game “Halo” how to rank and match the player to the appropriate level of challenge. We should apply this to classroom learning. The measurement and research company MetaMetrics uses a similar algorithm for Lexile analysis to match students to appropriate, complex reading texts. Since this core innovation exists, we need to channel our collective imagination and efforts in applying it to learning.

The technology industry must own up to its culpability in underserving our nation's schools and spell out what we will do to make things better."

Third, we need better policies to govern the privacy of student data. There is some work underway on this issue. Last year, Sebastian Thrun, one of the pioneers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, brought a group of educators together to draft the “Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age.” While the document is still undergoing revisions, the goal is to create a set of inalienable rights that not only ensures all student data adheres to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, but mandates that families and students should have access and full rights to their own data. Tech-industry leaders, educators, policymakers, parents, and students must collaborate to define and implement this responsibly.

Fourth, we must make it easier for parents to make decisions about their children’s education. More schools and districts are adopting online parent portals, but even those tend to provide an incomplete picture of student progress. As an industry, we need to commit to addressing both the data-integration and communication needs that would enhance and facilitate parents’ access.

Fifth, we need to be honest with educators about the problems we can and can’t solve. No more promises that a single device is a panacea that will meet the needs of every school, teacher, or student. When choosing technology, schools have the right to demand the tools that will help enrich an understanding of the content, enable real-time analytics, and engender immersive learning. Connecting these dots will ultimately bring about long-term results in teaching and learning.

We have until 2020 to reshape, recast, and remix U.S. education before we lose another generation of students, and I believe technology can and will contribute to this opportunity. After all, ours is a trade of passion and tenacity. The entire field is composed of individuals whose lives are devoted to preparing future generations of teachers, students, parents, and public leaders. Each one of us is committed to creating a world where all students have the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and express their creativity.

Now is the time for us to be honest in assessing the shortcomings of our current solutions, optimistic in our vision for a better approach, and, most importantly, possessed of the will to change.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Five Steps to Reboot American Schools


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