A Green Revolution for K-12 Education

January 20, 2012

 (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.