Innovation is the Key to Breaking Out of Our Educational Rut

“We’re going to jumpstart new competition between colleges – not just on the field or on the court, but in terms of innovation that encourages affordability and encourages student access, and doesn’t sacrifice educational quality,” Obama told a raucus crowd of university students in Buffalo, New York last week.

The need for colleges to innovate, to move beyond the higher education formula that has failed to adapt or change in decades, was a theme that President Obama touched on throughout the week.

“We want to encourage more colleges to embrace innovation, to try new ways of proving a great education without breaking the bank,” he reiterated in Syracuse. “A growing number of colleges across the country are testing some new approaches, so they’re finding new ways, for example, to use online education to save time and money.”

Unfortunately, as with so many things this White House does, their actions are speaking louder than their words. Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith reports:

Across the country in San Francisco [the same day President Obama gave his education speech], Paul Freedman, the founder of a company that had won a grant funded by the Gates Foundation to do roughly what the president described, got a FedEx package from the federal government.

This was not a letter of commendation. It was a notice from President Obama’s Department of Justice that his company, Altius Education, is under federal investigation. . . And commission documents that have not been released publicly, but were provided to BuzzFeed by Altius, paint a picture of a regulator that punished the company specifically for doing something — trying to reinvent a low-cost new college education — that are core goals of federal policy. And so even as Obama trumpeted innovation from the stage in Scranton, Freedman’s attempt to put it into practice seemed to have hit a wall.

“It struck me as highly ironic and deeply frustrating that we were trying to do exactly what Obama describes what the market needs and yet we’re getting resistance from his administration,” said Freedman, an earnest, bald 34-year-old who started Altius after selling a college recruitment technology company in 2004.

Altius’ laudable goal was to create a program with an emphasis on preparing students, through the use of “personal success coaches” and other innovations, to transfer into a four-year school. Thus far, it had produced some astounding results. The average annual tuition cost was less than $10,000 per year and about two-thirds of students successfully transferred into degree programs in two or four-year schools.

But Altius never quite fit into the very limited worldview of liberal policymakers. To them a college education is graduating after four years at a public school, with a certain major, requiring a certain number of credit hours, achieved by sitting in a classroom with a teacher lecturing you. That was never going to happen at Altius. Their success would be measured by the number of successful transfers, not the percentage of students they graduated.

The close mindedness of the political left isn’t bounded by the ivied walls of college campuses; their utter disdain for innovation spills out into K-12 education as well. Take this article by Allison Benedikt for Slate:

You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.

But as economist Alex Tabarrok so eloquently responded, “People, even well-educated, politically effective people, should not be used as tools to further some social engineering scheme.” Why would we trap children and parents in failing schools on the simple hope that their staying would magically improve things? After all, he notes, it is the power of choice that is so often the impetus for change. Just ask yourself this: Is your voice more powerful in a restaurant, where you can walk out and take your business with you, or at the Department of Motor Vehicles, where you have to go to get your license?

Given that reality, why not foster programs like the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that gave families the ability to choose the best educational opportunities for their child. That program increased the high-school graduation rate of students by 12 percent and immeasurably improved those students’ lives thereafter.

Innovation, technology and brilliant thinkers have dramatically changed the world we live in for the better. The realm of education, which still follows the same model it has for centuries, should not be immune from improvement. We must break out of our Industrial Era thinking if we want to break out of our educational attainment rut. President Obama captured that thought in his recent speeches. Now it’s time he put those thoughts into action.