Education 3.0

The schools we have are not the schools we need. Not if we want to compete successfully in the global economy, not if we want all our citizens to enjoy the blessings of understanding, not if we want to take full advantage of the information technologies we have recently invented. We need schools that match the needs of tomorrow, but a quick survey shows that we have very few of them.

Our best schools, measured by standards a century old, fail to prepare students for the new world they will face when they graduate. Our worst schools meet neither the old standards nor the needs of the new world, and see few of their graduates work through to success. We need new standards and measurements, based on the needs of the world and the workplace, as well as new schools that send students off with what they need to succeed in their generation.

Education 3.0 paints a picture of what these schools should look like, and then guides you along the process of envisioning your own revised school. It begins with a look back at how schools in the past have reflected the societies they serve, and how that reflection has become tarnished in the last few years. Then it looks to the possibilities offered to us today, taking full advantage of the new digital information technologies. You'll glimpse Education 3.0 on the ground, through the eyes of a student, a teacher, and a school leader. You'll examine in detail the new infrastructures, both educational and technical, that underlie this revised school. Finally, when you are ready to re-vise your own school, Education 3.0 provides an array of tools to create a new vision, write a comprehensive plan, and implement the changes.

Along the way, you'll visit students, teachers, and schools that are practicing the principles of Education 3.0 today. Not just in the wealthy suburbs, but in the boondocks and innermost of cities. You'll hear from them first-hand of their struggles and their successes.

Schools Today

Imagine an automobile factory where 100 cars start out on the assembly line on Monday morning, but along the way 40 of them are lost. So on Friday only 60 cars roll off the line ready for customers. Imagine further that the customers seem not satisfied with those 60 cars, and would buy them only with big discounts from the list price. And complain about them as long as they owned them.

Not even General Motors in its recent recalcitrant recession fell this far. A factory like this would never survive in the marketplace. Its management, stockholders, and employees would see the writing on the wall and work together to improve the results. If they didn't, customers would stop buying their cars, and they'd soon go out of business.

Now imagine a high school where 100 freshmen start out in the ninth grade, but along the way 40 are lost. So on graduation day at the end of 12th grade only 60 line up to get their diplomas. Imagine further that the employers and college faculty who receive these students seem not satisfied with their preparation, and take them only because no better graduates are available, complaining constantly about their quality.

In many of our large cities, these schools are easy to find. Of 100 students starting ninth grade, here is the number reaching graduation:

New York 55
Austin 57
Baltimore 54
Chicago 47
Cleveland 28
Memphis 42
San Diego 62
Detroit 57
Fresno 58
Los Angeles 56

While wealthy suburban districts see a larger proportion of seniors in the graduation line, their average graduation rate of 71% is not a sign of success. And even for those students who stick it out, they are not nearly as engaged in their studies as they used to be, nor do they see school as very useful to their preparation for the future.

For the first time in American history, the overall high school graduation rate is falling. A century ago, very few Americans completed high school: in 1905, about 5% of he eligible 18-year olds got diplomas. The percentage increased with the decades: 10% in 1910, 20% in 1920, and so forth, to 50% in 1950 to almost 90% in 1990. The last century saw a continuous and progressive climb in the proportion of citizens completing high school. Universal high school education, at public expense, was an important element in the American dream.

In 1990 the graduation leveled off, and is now falling. As a century of educational progress recedes, we need to ask why. Pundits offer many reasons for the decline:

  • The low quality of teaching due to poor preparation and the stranglehold of teacher unions.
  • The micro-management and de-professionalization of the craft of teaching.
  • The social problems of our cities and minority youth.
  • The lack of common national curriculum and standards.
  • The rigidity and irrelevance of the standard curriculum.
  • Too much time spent testing, not enough time learning.
  • Lack of frequent and accurate assessment of student achievement.
  • The effect of high-stakes exit-testing on students' hopes for graduation.
  • Inefficient urban school district bureaucracies and weak leadership.
  • The lack of parental control over their child's education.
  • Working parents who don't pay enough attention to their children's' education.
  • Too many local school boards meddling in the management of schools.
  • Not enough local control over the management of schools.
  • The distractions of the commercialized mass media.

All of these certainly contribute to the problem. But in addition to being self-contradictory, they all ignore two important factors:

  • the intelligence and energy of today's students, and
  • the radically altered nature of the workplace that has been brought about over the last two decades by digital information technologies.

These two related trends explain the declines in interest and completion better than any of those listed above, all of which have been around for decades, been tried before with little effect, and ignore the nitty-gritty of the teaching and learning that actually goes on in the classroom.

This work shows how the American K-12 school is not well-fitted to the nature of the modern workplace or to the lives of students. It calls on educational leaders to take advantage of modern information technologies, changes in the nature of today's workplaces, recent knowledge of how students learn, and the energy and industry of our students, and to move from education version 2 to education version 3. And it begins not in the cabinet rooms of the policymakers, nor in the cloisters of the researchers, nor with the panel discussions of the pundits, but in the once and future classrooms full of students. And looks at school from their perspective.


This essay is organized into five parts:

  • History: how our schools reflect the world around them, and why this mirror has become unfocused over the last decade.
  • Possibility: what our schools might look like if we took full account of the new technologies, the energies of our youth, and the needs of the modern workplace
  • Infrastructure: what we need to re-build behind the scenes to support Education 3.0, the educational and technical infrastructures that must be replaced.
  • Innovation: how forward-looking schools are making these changes, and how important it is to assess our progress as we go along.
  • Application: tools and step-by-step guides for analyzing a school, planning for a better future, and implementing education 3.0

There's also an Appendix that provides brief explanations of some of the technologies and techniques that make Education 3.0 possible.


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copyright © James G. Lengel 2010