3 Ways to Radically Remake U.S. Schools and Education

The United States must embrace the change required to reinvent our education system.

A high school student raises his hand to answer a question in the classroom.
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Jeff Livingston is the senior vice president of Education Policy at McGraw-Hill Education. He serves on the boards of Association of Educational Publishers, the education division of the Association of American Publishers and the education division of the Software and Information Industry Association.

During the State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a compelling challenge to the American people: leverage the creativity of the private sector to reinvent America's schools to better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. This challenge, delivered as part of a call to action for Americans to work together to reignite the true economic engine—a rising, thriving middle class—is one component of a much larger challenge we face in education.

Mr. President, we accept your challenge.

As Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in the Republican response, a 21st century workforce shouldn't be forced to accept a 20th century education. However, modernizing our education system requires a fundamental shift in the way we educate our youth from pre-K through higher education.

To date, we've lacked the boldness and flexibility to embrace such changes. Now, we must ask ourselves whether we're truly ready to embrace the change that is required to reinvent our education system for the future benefit of our children, even if it makes us uncomfortable in the present.

[See the U.S. News Best High Schools.]

To meet the challenge before us, here is what we must do:

Redesign our school system to help students achieve greater success in less time.

It's time to accept that the familiar system of grade levels and diplomas is not flexible enough for today's environment and puts too many limits on success. If we allow ourselves to imagine a system where students are grouped not by age or grade level but by their levels of knowledge and skill, we can better reward talent and hard work.

Embracing change like this will mean facing difficult questions. There are high school sophomores at P-TECH, the innovative high school cited by the president, who have earned upwards of 20 college credits. What will happen if they complete their associate degree before their high school diploma? Is this something we should encourage? If Major League Baseball can draft stars directly from high school, why can't IBM?

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Teachers Overpaid?]

Discover where serious implementation of the best education technology can take us.

The most encouraging thing about the state of education in this country is that we already have the technology necessary to revolutionize the system. Learning companies, startups, and nonprofits are all bringing innovation and "disruptive" thinking and solutions to education with the goal of dramatically improving student results.

No longer are we bound by the constraints of the traditional classroom. Massively open online courses are giving access to higher levels of learning globally. Innovative instruction platforms dare us to flip the classroom and create personalized learning pathways that let students work at their own pace and in their own style, learning exactly what they need to know at exactly the right time—all while the teacher walks around the room, providing coaching and instruction.

This type of digital learning experience, which will enable us to redesign our school system to be more responsive to students, is already happening in some places. With the right investment and commitment, we can scale this change in meaningful ways.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is a College Degree Still Worth It?]

Embrace alternative pathways to employment.

Our vitality depends on our ability to more closely collaborate and accelerate a real, ongoing partnership between education and business to close the broadening skills gap. Our society is too focused on getting students into traditional colleges, never bothering to ask whether that's the best pathway for them.

Companies are telling us loud and clear that they have plenty of jobs for students graduating with associate or technical degrees—jobs that aren't being filled. By not challenging the way we think about education, we're putting our students in an unfair position, asking them to pay large sums for an education that's not right for them while a job that is goes unclaimed. We need more collaboration between educational institutions and industry to ensure that our students have the skills employers are looking for.