I received both strong support for, and passionate pushback to, my article last week, “Re-building the K-12 Operating System” that was selected to kick off the Transforming Teaching series organized by Jal Mehta, Tyler Thigpen, and others at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Specifically, I had immediate responses on Twitter from Ilana Horn, a professor in math education at Vanderbilt, and Anya Kamanetz from NPR’s Education Team, and author of The Test, (which I enthusiastically recommended as a must read). With what detail one can muster in a Twitter back-and-forth, what I heard both of them challenge was my summary of an education OS that seemed to them elitist, that ignored the challenges faced by underserved communities, largely in terms of social services and support. I heard concern that underserved families need things they can rely on, not ambiguity and flexibility. And, they suggested, trying to scale something that works for a wealthy district into a poor district, is not only elitist but thoughtless. Both also pointed out that there is nothing inherently “new” about the OS I outlined; great educators have been proposing, suggesting, and modeling elements of it for many decades. Why, they ask, will it work now?
I can’t thank them both enough, and others, like Chris Thinnes, Chris Jackson, and Sherri Spelic who joined the conversation, for their feedback; this is why we share ideas! (Both Thinnes and Jackson, who are champions of educational equity, opined that my OS ideas were not elitist and that elements have worked well in a range of schools and communities.)
I want to clarify a few points in my thinking:
Most importantly, I carefully chose the metaphor of a changed “operating system”. When Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak created the first operating systems for personal computers, they created a radical expansion and accessibility of opportunities for tailored, customized computing. These OS’s did not limit how computers could be used; they radically opened up opportunities for people with an enormous diversity of needs and desires to develop hardware and software that met those needs and desires. A dramatically more flexible, permeable K-12 OS will do the same. The world of knowledge flow is tending towards what I have described as the cognitosphere, a hyper-connected neural network of knowledge creation, exchange, and management. Right now, K-12 education is locked into a rigid system that suggests that the needs of even two very different districts, schools or students are exactly the same, which is absurd. There is nothing in my suggested OS that would take social support services, for example, away from poor districts; if that is what those schools need, the OS allows for it.
Second, to suggest that schools serving underserved families cannot take advantage of this kind of OS is just wrong; there are plenty of examples of public, private, and charter schools doing just that. Rather than saying that we HAVE NOT succeeded at scale in the past, and therefore we CANNOT succeed at scale in the future, I prefer to synthesize what IS working, assume it CAN work at scale, and then focus on the scaling mechanisms.
Third, there is no question that every bit of what I have suggested as a new OS has been put forward by great educators in the past...and yet here we are. Why is “now” different? There are several reasons. The world has dramatically changed since the times of John Dewey, Ted Sizer, and the many other greats upon whose shoulders we all stand. But the downside of not changing our system has grown ever greater, and that seems to finally be attracting more attention. As Kamenetz showed in her book, doing well on standard tests, for rich and poor students alike, is a waste of an education system. By definition, in a rapidly changing world, the future is less knowable and more ambiguous, and if we don’t prepare our students to operate this way they are less likely to succeed in their respective futures.
Finally, I have never suggested that I offer any solutions to the problem of poverty, which is unquestionably the biggest obstacle to great learning faced by large numbers of our students. It may be that the obstacles of systemic poverty will trump any changes we make in our education system for SOME of our students, which brings us to an essential question: should we make dramatic changes in education that will positively impact many students, knowing that it may not positively impact all students. This is a debate I am willing to have.
I think the draft OS I pieced together from the thinking and work of great educators of today and the past provides a far better chance for more students to learn the tools to lead more productive lives. And I think it provides the flexibility and opportunities for great educators to decide how to tailor learning to the needs of their respective students far better than the OS we have today. It does not solve every problem, but that does not mean it does not solve many problems. It is a better place to start to solve the problems our students face…and that is the role of an operating system.