No matter their overarching ideological differences, prominent CEOs, state politicians, and noteworthy political figures found common ground when they gathered in Washington this week to discuss the state of the nation's educational system at a summit held by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
That common ground? Technology.
Whether it's near-ubiquitous devices such as smartphones and iPads or social media meccas like Twitter, technology that has been developed within the past five years is woven into nearly everyone's daily life. Yet the American school system has been left behind, educational policymakers point out. "It's interesting to me that technology has actually transformed how we interact together socially. It has transformed how we do business, but technology has yet to transform how we provide education," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the Dec. 1 summit. "We could do simple stuff like eliminate art and music and cut days out of the school year…eliminate sports and band. [These are] simple things to do, none of which are good for children. Or we could think about how we're going to become more productive, [and] how we'll become more efficient using technology."
[See how iPads are making their way into M.B.A. classrooms.]
William Simon, CEO of the U.S. division of Wal-Mart, America's largest employer, and Edward Rust, the top executive at insurance company State Farm, both indicated at the conference that they're unsatisfied with the state of the incoming workforce, citing young workers' general inability to efficiently use critical thinking skills and to adapt to the ever-changing technology that surrounds them on the job. Rust noted that 60 percent of applicants looking to join State Farm are unable to pass a basic entrance exam that focuses on the fundamentals of math and critical thinking. Wal-Mart has already responded to this problem by offering employees a chance to sharpen their mind and earn college credit at a discounted rate via American Public University, an online school. "We can't even imagine what education or technology will be like in 10 years," said Simon. "Students need to be not only trained in that, but they need to be taught how to learn."
[Read more about Wal-Mart's partnership with APU.]
Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of Boston Properties and editor-in-chief of U.S.News & World Report, and Kathleen Shanahan, chief executive of construction firm WRSCompass, both cited technology's ability to make the world smaller as an asset for schools. Rather than being confined to their classrooms, the best teachers should be able to use the Internet and portable electronic devices to teach students thousands of miles away. The executives believe that such a change would allow schools to cut substandard teachers and offer greater financial incentive to the best ones, who would reach more students than ever before. "We need to go digital," Shanahan said. "We need to blow up these textbooks. We need to have teachers from all over teaching children to the best of their capacity." Zuckerman concurs: "If we can find a way to get the best teachers and the great teachers using technology to spread their capacity and their talents and their teaching skills to more and more schools I think we have a chance to [make significant improvements]," he said.
Duncan and the panel of CEOs did admit that while technology grows exponentially, adoption of it in classrooms has been sluggish by comparison. They pointed to a few pockets of innovation, such as the experimental program School of One, which is run by New York City's department of education. At these schools, teachers have access to data that highlight their students' strengths and weaknesses on a daily basis, allowing them to cater custom lesson plans and homework to the needs of students on the individual level. The innovative approach would be impossible without the heightened presence of technology in the classroom according to Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools. While School of One's methods are unique, policymakers are confident they will be commonplace if schools are open to drastic change. "Five years from now education is going to look very, very different," Duncan said. "Paper is going to disappear. I think we're on the cusp of that."