Let’s start with a simple fact. Our schools and school districts were designed more than 100 years ago. My kids’ schools look almost exactly like the ones my great grandmother’s schools looked like, except they’re bigger and more impersonal. They’re outdated, and they’re not up to the task of meeting today’s educational challenges.

The structures and incentives in most school districts today all but make innovation impossible.

School districts are like huge ocean liners, almost impossible to turn. Everything, from the union contracts to school board politics to the procurement systems, stacks the deck against entrepreneurial thinking and innovation.

The school systems we’ve got are designed to stop things from happening, not to provoke experimentation and replication of great practices and school models. The entrepreneurial spirit is too often squashed or driven out; it’s just not valued. And, when great things do manage to take root, they are incredibly hard to sustain.

Given this context and backdrop, it’s important to note that technology is never a solution in itself. But technology is a powerful tool in schools if it’s married with fantastic teaching, and if it’s part of a coherent instructional strategy that has the potential to dramatically improve our ability to change the productivity curve in education.

I’m not talking about replacing teachers with technology here. I’m talking about finding ways to allow teachers to use their time much more productively — by using computers to deliver basic skills to large groups while, at the same time, working intensively with smaller groups of students in Socratic discussion.

The other problem technology can address is one that has bedeviled teachers forever — How to differentiate instruction in a class of 30 kids? Instead of covering a topic and moving on, whether or not all kids got it, technology can allow a teacher to have all 30 kids working on 30 different levels at one time. Kids who are moving through the content quickly can keep moving ahead while those that need extra support can get it in real time. Instruction can even be adapted
to suit different kids’ learning styles.

Used well, technology can kill one-size-fits-all education that frustrates teachers, students and parents.

Having said this, though, all of the best efforts to personalize education won’t succeed unless we also attack the structural barriers in school districts. We need to design districts and school boards fresh, so that their mission is to provoke, spread and sustain innovations.

Our portfolio strategy at CRPE is designed to do this by empowering teachers and principals to propose new ideas; create avenues for private sector entrepreneurs to partner with educators; give schools control over staff, funds and educational program; and hold them accountable for results.

We also need to create central office systems that support all this with great talent strategies, school incubators and research and data systems. It’s about making sure that adults have the power to drive change and that they’re responsible for producing tangible outcomes.

Academic content matters, too. Most teachers believe that Common Core standards are the right basic skills and knowledge for all students to master. But we have to know whether technology-based learning helps kids master those or other rigorous learning standards.

We also know that there are many other factors that matter when it comes to a student’s success in a career, or as a citizen — persistence, creativity, the ability to think critically and the ability to work in teams, for example.

The problem, however, is that we’re not yet very good at measuring these things in valid and reliable ways. People are also fed up with a lot of testing, so we need to measure all of these things in ways that don’t take away from instructional time and in ways that don’t cause students and teachers a lot of stress.

The future is in assessments that are embedded in technology-based tools that measure a variety of skills. Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that now.

Looking ahead, I’m not sure that we can expect the kind of meaningful progress our kids deserve unless we blow up traditional school districts — if they won’t change on their own.

We need to create as many avenues as possible for great people to do great work. Some of those avenues will have to be through more nimble structures like charter schools, which can operate as kayaks while we try to turn the ocean liners. And state laws need to be altered so that willing school districts can operate in totally different ways.

Educational change is clearly hard work. But, in my opinion, it’s possible — if we’re willing to break with the past and make some very tough decisions.

Robin Lake

Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Affiliate Faculty School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, University of Washington Bothell, @RbnLake

Robin Lake is Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Affiliate Faculty, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, at the University of Washington Bothell. She is internationally recognized for her research and analysis of U.S. public school system reforms, including charter schools and charter management organizations; innovation and scale; portfolio school districts; school turnaround efforts; and performance-based accountability systems. Lake has authored numerous studies and provided expert testimony and technical assistance on charter schools and urban reform. She holds a BA in International Studies and an MPA in Education and Urban Policy from the University of Washington.