A Green Revolution for K-12 Education

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The remarkably successful effort to introduce improved agricultural technologies into developing world agriculture stands as one of the most underrated technological and philanthropic achievements. India is now a major rice exporter, and the average calories consumed per person in the developing world has increased by 25 percent. If you were hoping that I was referencing an effort to put solar panels on schools, go ahead and stop reading now.

The Green Revolution in the developing world extended a similar pattern established in the Industrial Revolution in substituting technology for labor. Producers making continually improving products at steadily falling prices drives material improvement improving quality of life and reducing poverty.

Substituting technology for labor causes serious social disruption. China’s decades long mass migration of subsistence farm workers into the coastal urban centers for instance holds broad similarities to share croppers moving to industrial areas of the United States decades ago.

We humans have a perfectly understandable desire for stability, and we are easily made victim to nostalgia. Think for instance of Willie Nelson’s “Farm Aid” project aimed at protecting the family farm. The sad fact of course is that many family farms had been made obsolete and were no longer economically viable despite considerable government support. Many cling to the reactionary notion that the world was a better place back during some happy golden age, but certainly from a material standpoint this is just silly. Would anyone in their right mind wish for a world in which Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (and you) would have died at the age of 30 as a subsistence farmer? Why not yearn for the days of living in a cave? China doesn’t need as many people to produce far more food. Rather than bewailing the closing of the coal mine like U2 or Sting, these people have moved into other activities to make a much better life for themselves.

Education which has remained exempt from the productivity improvements experienced by most other human activities. Higher education costs have been racing ahead of even health care inflation for decades, and yet we lack even a drop of evidence to suggest that the average college student of today is meaningfully better educated than his or her peers from 1980. Likewise, after the emergence of education unions as major political powers in the 1960s, American K-12 schools have suffered from an efficiency implosion, with average achievement scores rising at a profoundly slower rate than the inflation adjusted spending per pupil.

Philanthropists played a leading role in bringing the Green Revolution to the developing world- a fantastic and frankly underappreciated success. The focus of philanthropists in American education should likewise be in researching models that can successfully substitute technology for labor in order to produce a better service for a lower cost. They should invest not just in developing the products, but also in the means to bring them to scale through things such as charter school, voucher and digital learning statutes. They should as Jay put it attempt to build new rather than to reform old.

Charter schools have become the skunk works for new school models- taking the lead in both digital and blended learning models. These experiments are very young, and will experience a number of failures. Encouraging and expanding this primordial soup of innovation, however, is of the utmost importance. My only disappointment at this point is that we don’t see more attempts at innovation in the private school sector like Christo Rey. If someone can develop a high quality, low-cost private school model which can survive and thrive outside of public subsidy, the battle for education reform will be much closer to finished.

The  ability to substitute technology for labor in education may have opened the door to such a possibility. We are in only the earliest stages of such experiments, and they are happening with considerable public subsidy, but if India can go from famine in 1961 to a major agricultural exporter today, anything is possible. Clayton Christensen warned that organizations cannot disrupt themselves, often even when they recognize a dire need to do so, so new entrants will likely be necessary.

6 Responses to A Green Revolution for K-12 Education

  1. GGW says:

    Generally agreeing with you….

    One question. You wrote: better product at lower price. Is that what you want?

    Isn’t classic Clay Christensen disruption to provide a WORSE (purposefully) product at lower cost, because customer is content with the lower quality? Example he used was Japanese steel.

    Seems like more than just an esoteric point. Clay argued that trying to engineer a better product often blocks disruption.

  2. Matthew Ladner says:


    My read of Christensen was that disruptive technologies start as inferior but more accessible products, but then improve over time to become a superior product and then the new dominant technology.

    I am not familar with the concept that engineering a better product blocking disruption, but it obviously doesn’t always do so. For example, one cannot imagine personal computers moving out of the hobbyist realm unless they had improved into better and more accessible products.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Well, what counts as a “better” product? That involves its performance on potentially hundreds or thousands of metrics. Including price! A cheaper product *is* a better product. This is the point Jay keeps making about Betamax. People say it was “better” but that wasn’t what customers thought.

    • allen says:

      Yup. And the crucial factor is that the determination of value lies with the customer.

      In virtually every way a Model T Ford was a crappier car then it’s vastly more expensive rivals. For prospective customers thought the Model T was good enough to do what they needed done and, at a price they could afford.

      I would, however, disagree that charter schools are the skunk works for education development. At least not yet.

      Currently charter schools are cozy under the performance umbrella provided by the public education system. A charter school can be pretty lousy and still be preferred by parents for reasons unrelated to educational efficacy.

      Competition based on educational performance will become an urgent priority when charter schools have to demonstrate their competence with regards educational effectiveness because the charter down the street is touting its superior performance. That’s not a condition that currently applies although here in Michigan, with the recent passage of law that removes the cap on charters, may just be the laboratory for K-12 educational experimentation.

      Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

      • Matthew Ladner says:


        I think what you describe is why it took 15 years worth of charter schooling before they developed promising blended learning models.

      • allen says:

        I’ve heard the term “blended learning” being tossed about quite a bit lately but I have some doubts as to the level of actual penetration into the classroom.

        Blended learning will obviously be part of that revolution but I don’t see much about the sorts of questions the existance, and success, of charters imply.

        For instance, critics of charters like to make the charge of “cherry-picking” which, necessarily is a result of motivated parents. After all, it’s only parents who are pushing their kids who’ll go to bother of enrolling them in a charter. But the charge undercuts one of the cornerstones of the public education system – mandatory attendance. You can have it one way, parents have to be prodded at bayonet-point to send their kids off for an education, or you can have it the other, that those darned parents want so much for their child to get a good education they’ll jump through the hoops attendent to attending a charter, but can you have it both ways? That parents are both motivated and unmotivated? The little conundrum requires some inspection.

        The obvious answer is that parents don’t need any extrinsic motivation to educate their kids and mandatory attendance law is counterproductive.

        Another implication of the success of charters, and a theme I’ve already belabored, is the undercutting of the value of the school district which I view as the primary vehicle for the undermining of education as a goal of the education system. When people start wondering about the value of the school district it’ll be “Katy bar the door” because vast amounts of tax money are spent on administrators, clerical personnel and non-teaching professionals. If districts aren’t necessary to educate kids then all those well-paid functionaries are superfluous and their salaries up for grabs.

        If you’re looking for a parallel you might want to check out what happened to all those state mental hospitals after the development of effective psychotropics.

        But to get back to a the idea of a competitive environment in K-12 education, the pace of development is probably on the up-swing for, among other reasons, in a charter school districts aren’t vetting developments to ascertain that they don’t upset any one of several, powerful stakeholders before giving them the nod. The removal of that impediment will certainly encourage worthwhile developments but without the goad of competition, of organizational survival, the developments will occur at a leisurely pace. I believe the developments will be substantive, as opposed to edu-crap, and that the developments will be jumping-off places for further development.

        But look for a charter school, somewhere, to aggressively tout the educational attainments of its kids. When the density of charter schools gets great enough the pressure will be on all those who don’t aggressively tout the educational attainments of their kids to do so. That’s when the innovation engine will start to really whine.

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