Posted by: crudbasher | February 18, 2010

What If Schools Don’t Change?

I had this idea brewing for a while and wanted to blog about it. So here goes.

I think that the way we educate our kids is obsolete. A good summary of this argument is put forth by Aaron Eyler from Synthesizing Education.

The fact is that the “factory system” of education WAS very well-suited in preparing people for jobs throughout the 1900s-1980s or so.

I also talked about it in a previous set of posts.  Technology is revolutionizing the whole way of distributing content and media. This of course is the business schools are in. This is from the Chronicle of Higher Education today:

For decades, newspapers enjoyed a geographically defined monopoly over the lucrative ad market, the profits from which were used to support money-losing enterprises like investigative reporting and foreign bureaus. Now that money is gone, lost to cheaper online competitors like Craigslist.

Teaching is a lot more complicated than advertising, and universities have the advantage of sitting behind government-backed barriers to competition, in the form of accreditation.

…it would be a grave mistake to assume that the regulatory walls of accreditation will protect traditional universities forever.

People are starting to realize that what colleges are offering are in many cases not worth the money. From the NY Times

Most Americans believe that colleges today operate like businesses, concerned more with their bottom line than with the educational experience of students, according to a new study. And the proportion of people who hold that view has increased to 60 percent, from 52 percent in 2007.

So these are the conditions that exist today.

1. Higher and higher costs. Rising much faster than inflation.
2. Increasing dissatisfaction with the value of the product being produced.
3. Technology is creating lower cost options.

If you look at any industry that goes through a radical change, the leaders of the new industry are usually NOT the same ones who lead the old industry.

There are many examples of this.

1. Ford, GM and BMW did not make horse drawn carriages.
2. Microsoft dominated the Desktop era but is 3rd or 4th in the Internet Era.
3. Apple is the most important player in Music.
4. is the most important player in Books.
5. Apple has a wildly successful phone! Where is Nokia, LG, Motorola??? They had every advantage but had too much to lose to take risks and think outside the box.

What is happening here is companies that are successful think things will keep going their way. They don’t take risks and change things because they have the most to loose.

Let me tell you the story of Silicon Graphics Inc. When I was working in Military Simulation in the mid 90s we used big, hugely expensive Silicon Graphics workstations. PCs just were not capable of doing decent 3D graphics at the level we needed. SGI probably thought they would be selling $100k workstations forever, however, within a decade, PCs had improved so much that they were able to do many of the jobs formerly done with SGIs. Not all of them, but lots of the lower end jobs. You just didn’t need a SGI machine that much. End result? SGI went bankrupt. They wouldn’t change their business model and got eaten by the new guys.

The parallels to higher education are striking. They also produce a very expensive product. That product is now able to be offered at much lower cost by online rivals who don’t have the expense of a football team and a large campus.  This product isn’t as good quality but it’s getting better all th e time.  Once you get realtime voice translation on the net then you can put your school anywhere in the world and have thousands or millions of students at once. If I only have 30 students then I have to charge them a lot of money. If I have 30,000 then the costs drop hugely.  We don’t all drive around in a Ferrari do we? (well, I do. j/k)  There is a huge potential market for commodity Education products.  Here is a UN report stating that 5 Billion people will use Cell Phones this year.  I want to sell an Educational product to each of them for $1.

What about Alumni?  We teach the students for 4 years, then send them on their way with a degree.  Then they have a 30-40 year career with no more education?  Really?  Why aren’t universities offering a constant stream of additional online courses to their Alumni to keep them up to date with trends in their degrees?  That market exists and somebody will serve it at some point!

Back to the initial question: So what if schools don’t change?

It is said that “Nature Abhors a Vaccuum.” If schools don’t change then somebody else will fill that void. In the 20th century the big names in Education were Harvard, Oxford, and University of Iowa. Is it possible in 10 years the big names in Education will be Google, Apple and Walmart? Yes Walmart. They are the barbarians at the gate right now.

So if we see this coming, why won’t schools adapt to it? Well, think of the players involved.

1. Teachers – they are the ones who want to be effective in the classroom but have the least ability to create system wide changes.
2. Administrators – More concerned with budgets. Not looking longer term and certainly doesn’t want to take any risks.
3. State Boards of Education – more and more are being constrained by Washington DC.
4. Department of Education – It’s all about funding. There is never enough they say, but what is it being spent on? Computers in the classroom? Teacher salaries? NCLB? How does any of the help the person in the classroom? Technology does no good without training and ideas to make use of it.
5. Teachers Unions – Are they more concerned with education or membership? Here’s a good quote from a John Stossel article:

When The Washington Post asked George Parker, head of the Washington, D.C., teachers union, about the voucher program there, he said: “Parents are voting with their feet. … As kids continue leaving the system, we will lose teachers. Our very survival depends on having kids in D.C. schools so we’ll have teachers to represent.”

No, I am becoming more and more convinced that the current education system cannot and will not change in the time left to it. The only thing holding back the barbarians at the gate right now is accreditation. How long can that last? If people leave accredited schools for innovative, effective private schools will businesses ignore those grads? I doubt it.

This change in education has already been set in motion but the window for doing something is rapidly closing. I think the motto of the Special Air Service is especially appropriate:

“Who dares, wins.”

Game on.



  1. I think that we are headed for the perfect storm of events that is going to lead to a collapse of the education system as we know it. I think this will be particularly true in the higher education realm, but it will trickle down and affect all schools, all learning. The current model isn’t working any more, of that I am sure. So who will emerge on the forefront? What will the tipping point be? I guess all we can do for now is sit back and watch it unfold. May the best man win.

  2. Philosophically I share your perspective to a degree. And I’m coming at this from a K12 perspective. I don’t think the system is entirely broken or obsolete though. I think it is shifting – witness the increasing numbers of educators using digital tools to connect, share, teach, help students learn, etc. It’s happening. Education isn’t a business per se, and students are not products. They’re people, all different, with complex needs. Technology absolutely helps without expert learning guides / mentors (aka teachers), the majority of K12 students wouldn’t succeed on their own. Yes, some will – there’s always a percentage of gifted students.

    The other thing to note is that we all came through this “obsolete” system, have adapted and learned to be successful. Why is that? Because we’re human beings. We learn inspite of our “up-bringing”. So, I think we need to think about change yes but not throwing it all away ’cause there are a lot of good aspects to schools as we know them. Just need to keep adapting and adapt we will.

    • Ahh an optimist! 🙂 You raise a number of interesting points which I would like to address.

      I think it is shifting – witness the increasing numbers of educators using digital tools to connect, share, teach, help students learn, etc. It’s happening.

      In my masters program I am in a class with about 40 other teachers. They are very cutting edge and yet they tell me stories about how lots of web tools are being blocked at their schools.

      Education isn’t a business per se, and students are not products.

      Education is very much a business because one of the metrics they use to measure progress is dollars per student. We are spending dollars to create educated students. I know from an educators prospective that’s harsh but I bet the folks at the Department of Education think in terms of dollars, not learning.

      The other thing to note is that we all came through this “obsolete” system, have adapted and learned to be successful.

      Great observation. I have know many teachers that won’t let their students use computers in the classroom because 30 years ago they didn’t use them either. I think things are changing there.

      I agree that things are changing. Very slowly and more in some areas than others. I just don’t think an organization as large as the Education system can change fast enough and effectively enough to remain relevant. The good news is we will know for sure in 10 years right?

      Thanks so much for adding to the discussion Brian! (now I am off to check on your blog) 🙂

      • Blocking is definitely a problem but I think that battle will be one. I know here in BC Districts are moving away from blocking and embracing responsibility for the educational conversation.

        We view $ / student as a budget builder and an enabler not a measurement or assessment – different here in BC I guess.

        Stay tuned for the next 10 years 🙂

  3. Ugh…these are some scary thoughts that are hauntingly true. Who dares, wins. More action, less talk!!

  4. Business and Industry deal with widgets and cogs and people produce. Education deals with the endless resource, people.

    The issue with the current system is the lack of direction. One by one, individuals and groups take a run at the problem like sysyphus moving his rock closer to the apex of the hill.

    I can’t change the world, but we can.

    Building connections is the start. By organizing the crowd’s efforts into specific tasks, we can have a much bigger impact.

    Example: If you put first grade teachers in a room, they will share stories and ideas that will help them grow. If you send these same teachers to a conference, they will be introduced to more diversity and push their thinking further. If even one of these members connects more globally through groups like Classroom 2.0, Diigo groups or through Twitter, they bring a much richer amount of diversity to his/her local group.

    We are trying to hit an 11-run homer when we are down by 10 runs. Instead of looking for a unified solution, we need to better organize our efforts and build a richer network. We need to show how everyone has something valuable to share.

    We all want to change the world. We lose our passion and enthusiasm when we are constantly told what we are doing wrong. Killing innovation by forcing cookie cutter strategies onto the masses is educations biggest fault.

    If you asked any teacher, “How would you change the educational system?”, you would almost certainly get a response. Why should these same people listen to us if we first fail to listen to them?

    Build the roads and the cities will follow. Teaching people to connect is everything. It may not be instant, but the effects of collective intelligence are powerful.


    • Michael I could not have said it better! I completely agree, getting teachers to connect is key. I wonder how many teachers get into the classroom and then stop learning themselves? That number is far to high I am sure.

      Thank you so much for contributing this comment!

  5. Still love this post given how it describes disruption without that language and the book in hand when you wrote this!

    • Thanks so much for commenting Michael! I bet you can see why I was so excited to read your book. 🙂

  6. […] of the posts I am most proud of over the last 11 months is one titled What if Schools Don’t Change? In it I wrote […]

  7. […] said this before, there is way to much money in education to leave it up to the schools…  For better or […]

  8. […] What if School’s Don’t Change? […]

  9. […] Is What Disrupting Education Looks Like Fascinating… I have mentioned previously that with all the new technology coming out, there is an opportunity for disruptive innovating in […]

  10. […] day. I feel bad for them because their hands become more tied with each new federal program. (see What If Schools Don’t Change and The Guidance System Of […]

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