America must break the machine of industrial-era education

August 25, 2011

By Shantanu Sinha
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leaders in education to reply to Steven Brill’s op-ed on the school reform deniers. Below is Sinha’s reply. Here are responses from Joel KleinRandi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch and others.

Steve Brill makes a compelling case that many issues in the educational debate are not actually debatable, but rather easily known facts.  Too many people are simply denying the obvious.

Clearly, public education in America is failing.  While the vitriolic debate rages on, millions of children are the undeniable victims.  Steve pointedly demonstrates how common sense is not sufficiently applied in many hotly contested topics like rubber rooms, teacher merit pay, or tenure rules.  However, while these are all issues worthy of discussion, solving them still won’t necessarily move the dial in a meaningful way.

I think the entire conversation has been hi-jacked by issues surrounding the adults and little has been done to address the needs of students.  If we spent more time thinking about what the students are actually experiencing, we would realize that we designed a very impersonal system that horribly misses their individual needs.

Many of the basic tenets of education seem strange if you really think about them.   Students are sorted into classrooms by their age (is it possible that students are actually different and not every 10-year-old needs to be taught the same thing?) They sit in classes of 25+ students, while the teacher is expected to say magical words that keep them all engaged (how many of us weren’t lost or bored during large portions of our schooling?).  If a student doesn’t understand 20% of the material, we congratulate him, tell him he passes, and push him to the next topic with swiss-cheese gaps in his understanding (how well can you master Trigonometry, if you don’t understand 20% of 6th grade math?)

We are treating students like cogs in a factory, not like the unique individuals they actually are.   We push students forward, without ever really addressing their individual needs, until many become disengaged and give up.   And while most of the debate focuses on the “under-performing” students, I would argue that we’re not exactly doing a great job with the students who seem to be passing by fine.  Many of them are never pushed to their true abilities, and they quickly lose their natural enthusiasm for learning.

We seem to miss the most obvious point of all:  our basic one-size-fits-all methodology is fundamentally flawed.

The education system badly needs an infusion with the tools of the 21st century.  Every other industry has evolved significantly over the past century, yet education is somehow stuck in the past.  Technology holds the potential to redefine the learning process and create an experience that is truly personalized for each student.

Some would argue that technology is over-hyped and will not be a “panacea” to all our problems. Haven’t we tried throwing computers in a classroom before?    They are right to be skeptical, since most prior ed-tech efforts have badly missed the mark.  The key is not the technology itself; the key is the new learning experience that technology enables.

Real change in education will occur when we move to a world where learning is:

Accessible: Every student anywhere in the country (or world) has access to free, high quality educational materials.

Individualized: Students are free to learn at their own pace, any time, in any place.  They are given more time to master a concept, if needed, or they can race ahead to advanced topics when ready.

Data-driven: Teachers and students are empowered with the real-time data they need to proactively diagnose where help is most needed.

Social: The majority of class time is a social experience for students, with project-based learning, peer tutoring, team-oriented activities, and lively discussion.  Students should rarely, if ever, sit passively and listen to a teacher lecture a class.

This isn’t some fanciful vision far in the future.   The technology exists today and has for a few years.   Blended learning approaches allow students to get personalized, interactive instruction through the computer, while the teacher is free to spend less time lecturing and more time driving social, engaging classroom experiences.

A common misconception with the use of technology in education is the idea that if the computer is so vital, the teacher’s role is somehow diminished.  The exact opposite is true, and the teacher is even more important and empowered.   Great teachers have always been trying to make learning more accessible, individualized, data-driven, and social.  They don’t feel threatened by students having access to interactive, educational materials.  Rather, they embrace it and push learning to new heights.  They know that the most valuable thing a teacher can do is to take personal interest in each student’s learning, and be the coach who mentors and inspires.

Changing education in this country is clearly going to be difficult.   Steve is correct when he says that real reform is only going to happen by addressing the 95,000 public schools.  We need an approach to reform that does not rely on replacing every underperforming public school with a charter school, or vilifying teacher’s unions.     There will never be enough charter schools, and unions must be a part of the solution.

The vast majority of teachers in this country are dedicated professionals who want the very best for their students.  They are handcuffed in a system that expects great things out of them, without giving them the tools to succeed.   It’s an incredibly difficult job, and too much of the reform narrative hinges on “bad teachers are the cause of all our problems.”

Our problems stem from an impersonal, industrial-age approach to education, despite the technology available in the world today.  We need to focus our efforts on giving teachers the tools they need to meet the individual demands of each student.   We need to give students the opportunity to take control of their own learning and rediscover their natural curiosity and excitement.   If we empower the people who matter – the teachers and students themselves – they may surprise us.


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Technology can be our biggest asset when it comes to education! I’m currently working towards my Master’s of Education online at this site: and I think we as a society have touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to utilizing technology for educational benefit.

Posted by rwinston87 | Report as abusive

Students have known – and been arguing for this – for some time now. Here’s one example:

Posted by MedievalTeacher | Report as abusive

[…] (August 25) at Reuters’ blog, Shantanu Sinha contends that “America must break the machine of industrial-era education.” […]

Posted by “The Machine of Industrial Era Education” | Report as abusive

Our kids are very smart. Still most of them may fail Math tests conducted in Europe or in Asian countries. This is because of easy curriculum they are offered at school here. Parents need to take Math education in their hand, and offer curriculum like Saxon or Tutorteddy at an early age. Spread the word, and save America.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I completely agree with this article, moreover it is not only an American problem, rather as with any problem today it is global.
First of all the students in the 21st century are clearly ahead of their teachers in terms of access and usage of information with their better affinity to technology, the teachers are basically at least 3 generations behind the students as they are teaching what they have learned from a previous generation, while the students are already receiving the vast up to date information through the Internet that makes them aspiring for the future. This makes the teachers lose their confidence and authority which makes classroom life like a war to try to keep the children engaged, when they are clearly not interested in what they are receiving.
But the even more important problem is that the education system all over the world is geared to produce workers, professionals, specialists who can start producing after leaving school, but there is no education on how to become a human being, how to relate to others, how to be a harmonious part of a human society.
Today we live in a completely global, interconnected system, so everything depends on how we connect to one another, with what attitude we connect.
This is the aspect of education we need to change first, and this does not even require any technical background, just a shift in priorities.

Posted by ZGHermann | Report as abusive

One of the problems of changing education is that our education system has always worked great …for the rich. The powerful, who dominate our society, have little interest in changing public education since their kids do not go to public schools, they go to private schools. The powerful and rich’s kids are advantaged by the existence of a poor public education system. Our education system has been a valuable tool in perpetuating and accentuating class disadvantage so why would the powerful change it?

Posted by Pedro07 | Report as abusive

How dare you question our approach to education, these are “educated” teachers in need of a raise! Note: here in Portland, OR the HS graduation rate is 50% (fact)!! Should have a surplus of hamburger flippers in a few years! Secularization of church and state (progressive approach/oxymoron) are to blame in my opinion! They’ve attacked traditional family and faith based teaching-the foundation of a healthy society! When you invite hell into education,don’t be suprised when all hell breaks loose!

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