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Is Disruption in K-12 Education Possible?


You’d be hard-pressed to hop on board the education conference junket without coming across a panel or keynote about the need for transformation within our classrooms. We’ve all heard the stats – in 1970, the U.S. had the highest rate of high school and post-secondary graduation rates compared to our global peers. We were number one. Today, we rank number 21 in the world for high school graduation rates and number 15 in college completion. Today, only seven out of every 10 ninth graders will actually get a high school diploma. In the time it takes you to read this post, a student will drop out of high school.

There’s no doubt that we need a radical change. But, given the high stakes (who wants to experiment with the education of our kids??), the largely bureaucratic and matrixed environment that is our current K-12 system (adoption process anyone?), and shrinking and shifting budgets (healthy lunch vs. broadband – you decide), is radical disruption even a realistic goal?

It seems that we’ve come to the conclusion that “going digital” – if done the right way – can catalyze a change. But what will a tablet in the hands of every child accomplish when we’re still facing funding shortages and crumbling infrastructure? Given the barriers ahead, rapid transformation feels fundamentally unrealistic.

Let’s stop having the same conversation over and over again, and instead consider if we’re asking the right question. Rather than trying to force disruption on an industry that resists it based on its very core, why don’t we consider what the right (and realistic) timeline for change is, and what the industry can (and cannot) solve for. 

Let’s identify the key challenges facing the concept of innovation and disruption in the education space versus other industries in flux.

Let’s discuss ways to balance the expectation for overnight transformation and complete disruption with the need for accountability and thoughtful implementation. Are we setting ourselves up for failure by expecting ‘quick wins’ in education, given its culture and infrastructure?

Instead of trying to find the silver bullet that will turn our system on its head, let’s explore what meaningful improvement in the teaching and learning experience looks like and how we can harness innovation to bring sustainable change to the market.

Now that’s a debate we’d like to hear…


The 2015 SXSWEdu Conference Panel Picker voting is underway and panelists, Stacy Childress of New Schools Venture Fund, Rick Hess of American Enterprise Institute, Mary Cullinane of HMH, and Michael Hanson of Fresno Unified School District are eager to take on this discussion next March in Austin. If you want to see how it plays out, cast a vote!  Log on to SXSW Panel Picker and vote for “Same Conference, Different Bagel: Can We Change?”

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