Detroit’s Bankruptcy and the Future of American Education

Innovation in how we educate kids is needed to prevent our cities from failing.

Posted Jul 21, 2013

I recently participated in the Biennial of the Americas in Denver in a discussion about the future of education. There are remarkably few certainties when it comes to what we have to do to improve education in the 21st century though there were many inspiring ideas to be heard from the 100 gathered experts. Those individuals ranged from American Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to John Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel and Claudine Brown, Director of educational programming for the Smithsonian Institute.

Here’s what we do know: the United States, still the world’s largest economic engine, is producing fewer university graduates than the BRIC nations like China and India. And those students are leaving university saddled with an average debt of $23,000. The poorest, most disadvantaged children are not reaching university, squandering huge amounts of human potential, while the rate of incarceration (and the expense!) is higher in the United States than any other nation.

As Arne Duncan said, “We have an opportunity gap, not an achievement gap.” The difference is significant. An achievement gap implies that the problem is with the individual student. If they would just study harder and memorise more facts like their Shanghai counterparts, they’d do just fine. But the real problem isn’t that students can’t achieve great scores on international tests or use their talent and further their education: it’s that we have failed to provide the opportunities for our kids to succeed. We have great teachers but most are using out-dated modes of instruction. Our classrooms are still corralling kids to sit in seats in ways that look a lot like education did two centuries ago.

Many experts are asking the same question: Why aren’t children using technology outside the classroom to access information and spending their time inside the classroom to problem solve, innovate and develop the character skills they’ll need to become competent citizens? While we’re at it, we might also teach them a little about social entrepreneurship and running a business.

If those ideas seem a bit out there, one need only listen to people like Yang Zhao, an American scholar with Chinese roots who has pointed out that we’ve reached the limits of our old model for educating kids. The making sausages model, as he puts it, streamlines all kids with all talents into becoming good employees to fill jobs. But the almost gospel like belief that there are millions of unfilled good paying jobs waiting for talented young people to fill is at odds with the statistics reporting deep underemployment of college grads.

It is all quite a mess, but as Yang Zhao says, looking to China for solutions and drilling students to memorize facts is not going to boost our economy. It will only produce a huge unemployed, well-educated class of young people who expect others to employ them in the types of factories that used to be the backbone of Detroit’s economy. The Chinese government knows it has a problem. Most of their university graduates are not the entrepreneurs or critical thinkers who will create the next Apple, Google, cancer drug or energy source. Besides, even China’s factories are now witnessing outsourcing to less developed countries throughout Asia.

Some good answers

Put 100 people together who have devoted their careers to answering the question “How do we make education effective,” and some interesting, albeit difficult to implement, answers appear. These answers may not save a city like Detroit, but they may prevent more bankruptcies in the rust belt urban centers across North America.

First, we need to dramatically change our classrooms. We need to stop warehousing kids 6 or 7 hours a day and forcing them to conform with regimented routines. Spend a day outside any grade 8 classroom door and I’ll guarantee you that you’ll hear mostly frustrated educators wasting hours of their time getting kids to sit down and listen. We need, instead, to stop taking away kids’ smart phones and start sending content to them in ways that they can access on their own terms. We need to make classrooms incubators for innovation and teach problem solving through case-based learning and simulation. We need teachers to become familiar with all these new technologies (many are already the leaders we need) and rethink the kind of educated citizen we want: a trained worker who sits in her seat, or a trained innovator at ease with technology?

Second, Detroit’s problems and GM’s problems began years ago when both stubbornly refused to implement dramatic changes. Big cars were being squeezed out of the market by smaller fuel efficient, more reliable vehicles produced more cheaply overseas. If things are now improving, they are not as a result of self-disruptions or innovations in North America, but inspiration and motivation that came from overseas. Likewise, the city of Detroit held on too long to some very old fashioned ideas about cities that doomed them to fail. Where was the inner city focus and Richard Florida’s creative class? Where was the urban vibe when the city had money? If Detroit failed it was because its leaders, like its schools, were stuck with some old ways of thinking about problems.

Fortunately, today there are many good examples of how cities can transform themselves and think their way out of trouble by thinking outside the box. Look at Calgary and its recently elected Mayor, Naheed Nenshi. Or look at Denver and its former Mayor turned Governor, John Hickenlooper. These individuals, and many others around the world (think San Antonio and Minneapolis, or Bilbao, Spain and Medellin, Colombia) are re-imagining their cities and their economies. But they need an educated group of citizens who can keep the momentum building. They need entrepreneurs who can solve problems in unconventional ways.

Which brings me back to education for the 21st century. We need to break down the walls to the classroom. On that point there was universal agreement among the experts. The emergence of high quality university courses available on line at no charge is changing the way we approach lifelong learning and how we obtain credentials. In this regard, American institutions are leading the charge, with the invention of Coursera and the almost 5 million global learners enrolled in its courses which are offered by the very best professors available.

Each innovation, from how we teach younger children, to university credits on the web and the redesign of our cities are all pearls on a string. Suddenly we are educating kids and young adults differently, building an entrepreneurial class and a citizenry that is critical in its thinking, while creating vibrant energy-efficient urban landscapes that can be incubators for innovation and growth.

My fear is that if we don’t change, and change quickly, China, India and Brazil will eventually take the lead. They will produce the knowledge and new energy economies that will drive economic growth. The only thing we have on our side at the moment is that our education system may be more easily changed than theirs. Old style learning is even more of a problem in the BRIC nations than here in North America. I’ve been to all those countries multiple times over the last few years and I can confidently assert that their educators are realizing that they need innovation too. But we are much closer to solutions, at least if we keep listening to the experts.

We need to break with tradition and take concrete steps to change how we educate and incubate innovation. Here’s a few ways to move forward:

• Take our wealth and reduce the price of admission to universities and colleges. Let’s give every child who wants it access to a great education. We can do that partly by putting more of our educational resources online.

• Stop using our K-12 schools as babysitters. Get the kids out of classrooms and into communities. Most kids don’t need highly qualified teachers all day long. Some do, and frankly, I’d rather our teachers be focusing attention on the third of kids most at risk. Let paraprofessionals work with the other kids who are doing just fine. Let them spend time outside the classroom in service learning, recreation, and self-directed learning activities so our teachers can work more intensely with the small group of students who most need them.

• Let’s provide the same kind of support for entrepreneurs that microcredit banks provide elsewhere in the world. Crowdsourcing for financing is a wonderful innovation, but one has to wonder why more is not being done to encourage and support innovation among our college grads.

• Let’s debunk the “career myth.” Our kids are not going to commit to a single career but will change their career path as new opportunities arise. Who’d have ever thought about a job like social media developer or big data analytics even three years ago.

Imagine a city like Detroit full of people who have been well educated and inspired to be innovators? Imagine a city that is vibrant at its core so that people meet and inspire one another. It all begins with children in school and how we teach them. The next time a teacher takes a child’s cell phone, maybe we should send the teacher back to school to teach him how to send content to his students through that phone. We should, in fact, be insisting that kids use their phones as learning tools. It might not get them to beat the Chinese on test scores, but it sure might prepare them for a rapidly transforming world that needs new ways of approaching old problems.

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