The End of School as We Know It

The End of School as We Know It

Debates over national standards, the value of preschool, and how much taxpayers pay for public schools are all about what to do with classrooms as we have known them for over a century. That's the wrong thing to be discussing.

"It's just that we don't need [a system like this] anymore. It's outdated," said Sugata Mitra, professor and education visionary, at a TED lecture last year. Mitra's research attracted worldwide attention after he installed a computer on a sidewalk in a poor neighborhood in India -- and watched children who had never used a computer before teach themselves how to use the machine and navigate the Internet.

Mitra, whose work was part of the inspiration behind the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, says the children didn't ask for instructions. They wanted a faster processor and a better mouse.

Last week, American parents were reminded just how outdated the system in the U.S. is. The Department of Education released results from a national test and found that American high-school students, on average, are not ready for life after graduation, whether their future involves college or the workforce. Test results showed that approximately three out of four high school seniors were not proficient in math and more than 60 percent were not proficient in reading. Average reading scores were actually lower than they were in 1992.

This is not news. This report card's long-term results show that 17-year-olds' average scores in math and reading haven't changed since the department started keeping track in the 1970s.

Earlier this year, the Goldwater Institute investigated the future of learning and found what should be news to parents around the country: Soon, education may come from something besides a school.

Mitra, for one, did not stop at installing computers on sidewalks. He's thinking big about education and is working to build a "school in the cloud," where students learn at their own pace through online programs. In the cloud, students will be assisted by educators around the world who interact with them through a web-based portal. Five such schools are now open, two in the U.K. and three in India, and are focused on what is being called "self-organized learning."

Here in the States, bold changes are also afoot. In Louisiana, a small pilot program is allowing families to select individual courses from a database of traditional, charter, and college classes. Parents enter their ZIP code and find specific classes matched to their student's needs at a school near their home or online. Wisconsin has also adopted a course-choice option for students.

In Arizona, families have flexibility not only when it comes to finding classes, but also when it comes to paying for them. Michael and Amanda Howard are among the hundreds of parents using an education savings account to buy textbooks, pay for virtual classes, save for college, or pay private school tuition. With an account, public funds are deposited in a parent's account to use for educational products and services.

The Howards have helped their son, Nathan, with his special needs by using the account to pay for educational therapies. "This year we have learned that Nathan has a love for social studies. He knows almost all the 50 states, loves spelling, and is starting to read books," Amanda says.

Pending the governor's approval, Florida is poised to become the second state to allow parents to use education savings accounts. Lawmakers in Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma, to name a few, have also considered education savings accounts in recent years.

The most innovative efforts to avoid a repeat of the latest twelfth-grade test scores are efforts to think outside the classroom. Mitra, along with parents and lawmakers across the country, have ideas and solutions that prioritize a student's needs. These ideas change education's central question from "Where do you go to school?" to "How do you want to learn?"

If students have alternatives to being assigned to a classroom, they -- and their parents -- can focus on what they need to learn to be successful.

Jonathan Butcher is the education director at the Goldwater Institute.

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