About That Obsolescence Thing

A few of you have asked me what I mean when I say that American public education is obsolete. I admit that it’s a jarring statement. To understand what I mean, take a look at the picture below.

I think this is a Model T, but most stock photos are really expensive, so forgive me if it's not the exact model!

I think this is a Model T, but most stock photos are really expensive, so forgive me if it's not the exact model!

That’s a Model T, the iconic automobile of early mass consumption. It had about twenty horsepower, with a top speed of just above forty miles per hour. Today, Ford makes many more cars than it did in the early 1900s, when the Model T was popular. Today’s most basic Ford, the Fiesta, has a top speed over 105 miles per hour. In other words, the best Ford could do in the 1910s is nowhere near the worst option that Ford offers today. You could assemble a team of great mechanics and ask them to make the Model T perform at the same level as the Ford Fiesta and they would laugh at you.

It seems almost comical to expect an invention from early 1900s to serve our contemporary needs vis-à-vis transportation. Now consider our public school systems. Our traditional public schools took their current form in the 1910s. The composition and needs of the American population have changed in every conceivable way since then, and yet the public system we rely on to educate most of our children looks shockingly similar to the system that existed at the turn of the last century. And yet nobody is laughing when we try to make our educational Model T work for today's children. We might be able to crank a little more horsepower out of it, but can't we do better?

I use the frame of obsolescence, because I think it’s an easier way to start a real conversation about what to do next. Too many conversations about schools start with the premise that our schools are “broken” or “failing.” That’s a recipe for the blame game.

"Who broke them?"

"Who’s a failure? Me?"

We cannot change the past, but we can build something different for the future. Speaking of the future, tomorrow I’m heading down to Central Falls, Rhode Island to talk to some families and educators. The schools in Central Falls serve a student body that is overwhelmingly Latino. Almost all of the students in the system either are, or were at some point in the last five years, English Language Learners. The children in places like Central Falls are the future of this country. I’m really excited to hear their stories. If you have any good questions for me to ask, send them along!