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Is It Really that Bad?

The perception is that education is in a state of crises in many countries around the world.  Is it really that bad?   That depends on how you measure performance.

In Disrupting Class, Messrs Christensen, Curtis, and Horn make a case that individual teachers and administrators have done a pretty good job of meeting the general expectations that society has set for them in the past, and that they’ve always been motivated to improve.  Indeed they point out that throughout the history of public education in the US, schools have adjusted to deliver reasonable well against four different sets of objectives.  The objectives they articulated (in summary form) were i) preserve democratic values, ii) prepare students for a vocation, iii) keep America competitive, and iv) eliminate poverty1.    

Others have articulated the societal intent, and the resulting objectives, of education in slightly different terms.2  

So what are the right measures of performance for the education ‘system’ in today’s post-industrial society? 

Messrs Christensen, Curtis, and Horn go on to point out that:   

“In any community, the world over, people disagree wildly on education. Although people can agree on the broad platitudes … beneath that people have different goals for education, different concerns, and different ideas of what actions yield what results. Headlines in newspapers focus a great deal of attention on this bickering between groups”3

Here’s what I take away from that observation:  

It follows that people, the world over, implicitly might agree that intent, objectives, and the way people learn are all quite individual.  Local or family cultures vary widely, and within, or between, these groups, each person is wired differently.   Therefore we should measure our performance against how well we enable individualized education8 on a mass scale.  This individualization applies to intent, policy, and all aspects that touch delivery and assessment.

We’re in an era of rapid4 technology enabled transformation in education worldwide. While for the most part, we have historically operated with an institutionally centralized policy setting model.  We still do. This has provided a great deal of uniformity in what students learn, and how they learn it.  However, we’re early in the process of a shift to a policy setting model that is more distributed, more flexible, more individualized, and sometimes even effectively crowd sourced.   I believe that this holds true for all segments of education.5 The technology enabled shift towards the individualization of education is starting to effect what people learn, and how they learn it.    

Like in many other industry segments, power, control, and responsibility is shifting into the hands of the individual.  

At the time of this writing, there is widespread recognition that the state sponsored, centrally planned, uniformly delivered system(s) of education must be re-designed, perhaps even completely ‘rebooted’6, or risk becoming irrelevant in the future.

Show me the Numbers

Measuring performance against the objectives stated at the beginning of this article is hard.7       Are we doing a good enough job of eliminating poverty, or even keeping America competitive?

I list below some quantitative indicators that support the premise that the current education system(s) is not meeting the expectations of most people:

  1. The US ranks near the bottom for income equality when compared to other developed nations, and many developing nations.  The situation is getting worse (The Atlantic, The Economist, CIA)
  2. Statistics vary widely, but about 1 in 4 high school seniors in the US will not complete school.  There is wide variance by race and socioeconomic status. ( statistics, National Center for Education, Beyond Crime and Prisons )
  3. The US is at best, average, among both developed and developing nations when it comes to educating students in math and science (PISA Result Summary and PISA) :
    • Math:  U.S. 15-year-olds had an average score of 487 on the mathematics literacy scale, which was lower than the OECD average score of 496. Among the 33 other OECD countries, 17 countries had higher average scores than the United States, 5 had lower average scores, and 11 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average. Among the 64 other OECD countries, non-OECD countries, and other education systems,  23 had higher average scores than the United States, 29 had lower average scores, and 12 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average score.
    • Science:  On the science literacy scale, the average score of U.S. students (502) was not measurably different from the OECD average (501). Among the 33 other OECD countries, 12 had higher average scores than the United States, 9 had lower average scores, and 12 had average scores that were not measurably different. Among the 64 other OECD countries, non-OECD countries, and other education systems, 18 had higher average scores, 33 had lower average scores, and 13 had average scores that were not measurably different from the U.S. average score.
  4. Although federal education spending has increased 63.8% percent since the inception of the No Child Left Behind education law, there has been little improvement in America’s test scores and an overall further diminishment of U.S. education on the world stage, according to CNS News.
  5. “The Center on Education Policy released a survey in March 2005 that showed 71 percent of the nation’s school districts are spending more time on math and reading to the exclusion of other subjects. The core subjects on which standardized achievement tests are administered is where priority resources are being focused.” Disrupting Class, Kindle Location 1879
  6. There continues to be huge budgetary pressure on public schools (Education Takes a Beating Nationwide). I see evidence of this in our own local school district where significant funds are raise though a charitable foundation to pay for basic things like science and music instruction.
  7. The overall budget set aside for education pensions went from $455 million in 2002 to $2.6 billion in 2011 (The failure of American Schools)
  8. According to a new study from the National Education Association, 46% of new U.S. teachers quit within the first five years because of poor working conditions and low salaries.    See also McKinsey’s Why Top Students Dont Want to Teach.
  9. UK:  A British government study reported that a quarter of the English workforce is unable to add the menu prices of a hamburger, French fries, apple pie and coffee. Moreover, one out of five British students could not correctly locate Great Britain on a world map. (Solutions to Education).  What would the results be if this study were conducted in the US?
  10. More US Centric stats can be found in this promotional video for the movie Waiting for Superman.  Two critiques of the film can be found here and here.   We continue to collect more sources of statistics in our feed on

(Many additional related statistics can be  accessed in the Global Silicon Valley Advisors – American Revolution 2.0 report, and in Developing the School for Digital Kids, page 26, Quest2Learn and the Institute of Play.)

Why Have We Reached this Point?

Disrupting Class identifies a number of issues conspiring against state sponsored education today9.   The authors do a good job at providing references that both support and debunk the conventional wisdom about each.   It’s required for anyone interested in this subject.  I include the issues that they identified in my list below, in addition to compiling others that I believe are relevant:

  1. Lack of clear, coordinated societal intent (i.e. lack of agreement on the basic intent and objectives upon which we base our measurements of success).
  2. The way we measure success (No Child Left Behind ; also see LA Times)
    • The knowledge and skills that we test for
    • The limited and highly standardized testing methods that we use to measure mastery
  3. The way we teach (deliver learning)
    • Outmoded teaching paradigms (e.g. lecture based)
    • Highly standardized teaching methods that don’t fit well for many students (e.g. state and school constraints on the way teachers teach a subject, the books and materials that they use, and the necessity of preparing for the standardized test)
    • A one size fits all assembly line model that advances students who do not yet have complete mastery (essentially groups them by age, rather than ability, interest, and learning style)
  4. A highly standardized curriculum that simply isn’t relevant and interesting for many students.  For many students we are not optimizing the use of their precious time.
  5. Lack of, or complexity in, funding.  Funding comes from federal, state, local, and charitable sources in the US.   One some levels funding is based on test scores.   (It’s not uncommon for teachers to buy their own supplies for their classroom!  So I guess you can also say that some funding comes indirectly from certain teachers.)
  6. Systemic poverty (e.g. If you don’t have enough to eat, learning becomes more challenging).
  7. Lack of security throughout the day (e.g. It’s hard to pay attention in class if you know that after class you’re going to get bullied.)
  8. Uninvolved parents
  9. Lack of access to technology
  10. Shifting student motivations 
    • Some students are less motivated than others due to their economic or political conditions.   At a certain point in a culture’s development, certain extrinsic motivators become less important than intrinsic motivations: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons aught to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” – John Adams
    • Media, chemical, and other environmental factors (Read Boys Adrift)
  11. Under-compensated or mis-compensated teachers
  12. Under trained and misplaced (classified by some as unqualified) teachers
  13. Under resourced teachers
  14. Teacher’s unions (Waiting for Superman: commentary , clip ; critique)
  15. The very nature of the ‘supply chain’ itself (fragmented, institutionally controlled, using legacy technology).
  16. Moneyed interest in the supply network . 
  17. Poor research practices in the discipline (at least until recently). 
    • Christensen, Curtis, and Horn dedicate a whole chapter to Disrupting Class on weaknesses in research methodology in the field of education (chapter 7).  They advise incorporating deduction based prescriptive research, instead of focusing solely on inference based descriptive research.
    • Projects like the Strategic Data Project at the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research seeks to improve the data quality, research methods, and analytics capabilities for policy makers.
  18. Enabling technology is only now reaching an adequate level of maturity 
    • The ‘mesh’:  Up until now, the average person hasn’t been networked in any significant way. Social networks are a relatively new phenomenon.  This is now changing and the new possible, is possible.  More advanced layers of networking enables among many things students to teach students, and for teacher’s to teach teachers. 
    • Neuroscience, psychology, and medicine is advancing. We’re gaining a better understanding of how people are wired.  This is key to mass-customization; to meeting the needs of each individual.
    • Technology is also enabling better research and the more real time diagnosis of individuals and systems.

Zoom Out

I’ve spoken primarily from the point of view of my own country (the US).  I suspect that western democracies, and other post-industrial countries share many things in common when it comes to the problems, challenges, and objectives that we face.   My colleagues from China, India, Germany, France, and beyond will weigh in with their own region specific points of view.

Until then, the following diagram provides a nice glimpse of how well we are doing (or not) at the planetary level (on a relative basis). 

education index.png

“Countries fall into three broad categories based on their Education Index: high, medium, and low human development.  The 2007/2008 edition of the Human Development Report was published on November 27, 2007” – Wikipedia

The following statistic gives you a feel for what medium really means:  Only 15% of Indian students reach high school, and just 7%, of the 15% who make it to high school, graduate. (India still Asias reluctant tiger).

See also the United Nations Millenium Goals Report for 2011. The whole report is interesting, but see specifically Goal 2:  Achieve Universal Primary Education.  Perhaps when this goal is achieved, we can change it to ‘Achieve Universal Secondary Education’ or even better, ‘Achieve Universal Lifelong Education’.  

Here are a few good reasons to focus investment in the developing world:

  1. In the software industry, one best practice is to design an application for mobile first (as opposed for a desktop browser based endpoint).  We do this, because mobile is the most constrained environment.  This forced simplicity, requiring the designer to find the bare essence of what is required, yields excellence.   This is why I believe that when we deliver effective systems for the developing world (in many ways a more challenging environment), we can yield great insights for the developed world as well.  (Charles Leadbeater touches on this last point here.)
  2. The developing world has less system legacy to hinder progress.  (Paradoxically, this makes it in some ways a less constrained environment.)
  3. Developing nations contain the majority of people, and the majority of growth.  Hans Rosling at the TED conference points out that the world population has doubled since 1960.  With a world population of 7 billion people in 2012, 4 billion are now in the relative middle class (significant consumers).   Only 1 billion people live in the developed post industrial societies. It’s possible that in 2050, we’ll have 6 billion people in the middle class, and 1 billion people who live in developed post industrial societies.    
  4. As it stands now, there is an extreme scarcity of qualified teachers and lack of capital in the many regions.   This is an opportunity.  See Daphne Kollers presentation at TED.  
  5. Some schools of thought suggest that we’ll get higher incremental gains from investing in developing world education, than by investing in the developed world.10


So is it really that bad?  You be the judge based on the information above.  Three things are clear to me:

  1. There is significant room for improvement!  A future of enduring prosperity depends upon it.
  2. We are entering a time of technology enabled transformation in education worldwide (see the collection at Impact: The Future of Education if you doubt this).   It’s early, but hopeful.  As always, the early adopters will pave the way for the mainstream.  Today, learners and their supporters (parents, teachers, friends)  are motivated to use the technology and resources that they have at hand to workaround the current system.   Digital tools will make not only make individualized learning possible, but will enable individualized ‘policy making’ (e.g. tracking learning goals and progress against personal targets).  In fact, without digital learning tools, it’s conventional wisdom that it will be impossible to scale individualized learning.11   In this case, I agree with the conventional wisdom.12  Where we go from here will be the topic of upcoming blogs.
  3. The principles of the Disruptive Innovation Framework will be the basis for any successful transformation.

This article is part of the The Future of Education research initiative.


  1. Disrupting Class, kindle location 1071 or Chapter 2
  2. The question of intent is addressed in many places, including here and here by researcher Sebastian Weiczorek.   Here’s my view:   By nature, education is what shapes our future.   If our most basic intent as a collective society is sustainable economic growth, perhaps even a more holistic enduring prosperity for all (which is my hope), then we need to ensure that we have the right pillars in place upon which this growth and prosperity depends. These pillars include (but are not limited to): i) A democratic, just, functional, and transparent system of governance, ii) Ubiquitous security (local, national, international), iii) A healthy society (clean air, water, soil, healthcare, etc.), iv) Trained workers (matched with the right jobs)
  3. Disrupting Class, Kindle Location 3187
  4. Perhaps increasingly rapid.  (point , counterpoint)
  5. While the same holds generally true for the state of professional education, we will dedicate an entire blog to this subject.
  6. There is relatively widespread agreement among ‘experts’ (Toffler, Gates, Robinson) that the system that we have today, does not need to be changed, it needs to be re-booted.   In effect, it is being rebooted.  Learners with new found access to educational resources are not waiting for state funding.  They are acting (learning).  We’re just at the beginning.  See also Seth Godin’s excellent essay series on the subject Stop Stealing Dreams.
  7. Although not at all quantitative, from an anecdotal standpoint, is an interesting idea when it comes to assessing performance.  Perhaps someday, with text analysis, we’ll be able to leverage data such as this in a quantitative way. 
  8. Education education is education that is planned, delivered, and appropriately assessed based on individual objectives, needs, and the learning style of each individual.
  9. Disrupting Class, starting at kindle location 234.
  10. See this Economist hosted review of The Great Stagnation (Author Tyler Cowen)
  11. Personalized Learning in 2012:  A Student and Parent Point of View
  12. Although some of the above mentioned challenges are being addressed during this technology enabled transformation, meeting other of the challenges will require the certain basic services (e.g. ensuring an open and accessible Internet, security and the rule of law, access to clean air, water, food, and an overall healthy environment).  I know that liberals and conservatives passionately disagree on what services government must deliver, and I will not even attempt go into this here. However these services must be made available either by ‘the crowd’, or a formal well governed institution. Without them, the transformation cannot be complete.
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