US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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Homeschoolers: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

My eight-year-old daughter and I recently read about the Salem witch trials. She had heard about Salem from a friend who visited the nearby town during its popular Halloween festivities, and she was curious about the witches. We went to the library to get some books on the topic of how 20 innocent people were put to death for “witchcraft” in 1692, with scores more accused and jailed.

What struck me most about revisiting the Salem Witch Trials with my children was the fact that these English Puritans who had recently settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony had no presumption of innocence. Those accused of a crime at the time, both in the New World and elsewhere, were guilty until proven innocent. The presumption of innocence in trials, with court defenders and impartial juries, would take centuries to catch on. The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” was coined by an English lawyer in 1791, but even then it took a long while to become the legal precedent we all now take for granted.

A Pattern of Privacy Invasion

Of course, this legal designation is still imperfectly applied, particularly in cases of fear and bias against certain groups. The US PATRIOT Act, for instance, allows law enforcement agencies the authority to conduct surveillance on individuals and groups by monitoring personal phone calls, emails, and financial documents without a court order. First passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and reauthorized since, it is intended to root out the evils of terrorism but does so by violating individual liberty and presuming guilt over innocence.

We see this pattern of privacy invasion by the state and presumed guilt in other areas, as well. In the United Kingdom, for example, there has been such a dramatic rise in the number of homeschoolers that the state believes it must regulate and monitor the practice. Estimates suggest that the number of homeschoolers in the UK increased 40 percent in just three years, and it is thought to be the fastest-growing education option in the UK, with approximately 60,000 homeschooled children in 2018.

The rapid growth of parents taking back control of their children’s education has led to calls by government officials to create a “compulsory register” of homeschooled children and to monitor their education. The UK’s Department of Education told the BBC through a spokesperson this week:

Where children are being home educated, we know that in the vast majority of cases parents are doing an excellent job. We also know, however, that in a very small minority of cases children are not receiving the standard of education they should be.

The idea that all homeschooling families in the UK must now be presumed guilty of neglect because a “very small minority” might be is not a legitimate reason to violate the privacy and personal freedom of law-abiding citizens. There are already laws to protect children from abuse and neglect in the UK and elsewhere, and those laws should be duly enforced; but subjecting all homeschooling families to regulation and oversight because of fears of a few is a blatant example of state intrusion.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Families often choose the homeschooling option because they are especially attentive to their child’s well-being. As The Guardian reported last fall:

Many parents who opt to homeschool their children say they are avoiding bullying, exam pressure and stress. Others have concerns about special educational needs, not getting a place at the school of their choice, or the school environment.

In other words, most of these homeschooling parents are going above and beyond to provide the best education for their children and should not have their decisions questioned and educational approaches monitored.

Supporters of homeschooling regulation, both in the United States and abroad, frequently say that it’s really no big deal. If you’re one of the vigilant homeschooling families then you shouldn’t mind state oversight. But that’s like saying if I have nothing to hide, it’s okay for the government to search my house and read my emails—without a warrant. It presumes guilt over innocence.

Intentions may be good. The Salem Puritans wanted to root out witchcraft and what they saw as the work of the devil. The PATRIOT Act aimed to prevent terrorism through government surveillance. Monitoring homeschooling families is presented as protecting children. But in all cases, innocent people are suspected of guilt and must prove themselves worthy. It’s antithetical to the values of a free society.

I wanted to tell my daughter that we’re so much better now than those Puritans, that “innocent until proven guilty” now prevails. But I’m honestly not so sure.

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Why Steve Jobs, not Bill Gates, Was the True Education Visionary

When it comes to education reform, there are generally two camps: those who want to improve the existing mass compulsory schooling system through tweaking and tuning and those who want to build something entirely new and different. Not surprisingly, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was in the “think different” camp, advocating for school choice and vouchers, while Microsoft’s Bill Gates backed the Common Core State Standards and other incremental reforms within the conventional mass schooling model.

The Efforts of the Gates Foundation

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into K-12 education over the past 20 years, including $280 million toward Common Core, which people of all political persuasions came to despise for its standardization and government overreach. Earlier this week, the Gates Foundation announced an additional $10 million to train teachers on “high quality” curriculum. The charity is on track to reach its goal of dedicating nearly $2 billion dollars to K-12 education by 2022.

These huge philanthropic efforts, combined with the nearly $700 billion a year that US taxpayers spend on K-12 mass schooling, means Americans spend more on education than any other country but with far more dismal results. Chipping away slowly at standard schooling may not be doing much good.

Jobs Saw the Need for Disruption

Steve Jobs recognized this. He saw that true educational transformation requires disrupting the entire mass schooling model. As he did with his revolutionary Apple products, Jobs envisioned an education system that is innovative, experimental, and individualized for each learner. In a 1995 interview with the Smithsonian Institution, Jobs asserted his support for vouchers and entrepreneurial educators:

 I believe very strongly that if the country gave each parent a voucher for forty-four hundred dollars that they could only spend at any accredited school several things would happen. Number one, schools would start marketing themselves like crazy to get students. Secondly, I think you’d see a lot of new schools starting…You could have twenty-five-year-old students out of college, very idealistic, full of energy instead of starting a Silicon Valley company, they’d start a school. I believe that they would do far better than any of our public schools would. The third thing you’d see is, I believe, is the quality of schools again, just in a competitive marketplace, start to rise. Some of the schools would go broke. A lot of the public schools would go broke. There’s no question about it. It would be rather painful for the first several years…But far less painful I think than the kids going through the system as it is right now.

For Jobs, vouchers were only one piece of the education transformation puzzle. He realized that an incremental approach to reforming the existing mass schooling model does not work because of the power structures and bureaucratic tendencies inherent in conventional schooling. In the same Smithsonian interview, Jobs said:

I’d like the people teaching my kids to be good enough that they could get a job at the company I work for, making a hundred thousand dollars a year. Why should they work at a school for thirty-five to forty thousand dollars if they could get a job here at a hundred thousand dollars a year? Is that an intelligence test? The problem there, of course, is the unions. The unions are the worst thing that ever happened to education because it’s not a meritocracy. It turns into a bureaucracy, which is exactly what has happened. The teachers can’t teach and administrators run the place and nobody can be fired. It’s terrible.

Two Different Experiences, Two Different Outlooks

The vastly different education policy approaches favored by Gates and Jobs may be due in part to their own childhood schooling experiences. Gates attended a private day school, Lakeside School, in Seattle, Washington, and said in 2005: “Lakeside was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Jobs, on the other hand, had a far less favorable reaction to his public schooling. He recalled:

School was pretty hard for me at the beginning. My mother taught me how to read before I got to school and so when I got there I really just wanted to do two things. I wanted to read books because I loved reading books and I wanted to go outside and chase butterflies. You know, do the things that five-year-olds like to do. I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.

While both of these tech moguls dropped out of college to start wildly successful businesses, their opinions on K-12 education policy reflect many of the differences that came to symbolize their respective companies. Apple’s visionary motto of “Think Different” challenges the status quo, while Microsoft’s “Empowering Us All” may just capture the next incremental change on a well-trodden path.

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School Security Is Now a $3 Billion Dollar Annual Industry

US taxpayers spend nearly $700 billion each year on K-12 public schooling, and that eye-popping sum shows no sign of slowing. In fact, as more non-academic programs are adopted in schools across the country, the price tag for mass schooling continues to swell even as achievement lags.

The Cost of School Security

One ballooning school expenditure is the vast amount of money allocated to school safety. US schools now spend an estimated $2.7 billion on security features, from automatically locking doors to video surveillance and facial recognition software. That amount doesn’t include the additional billions of dollars spent on armed guards at schools. Federal spending on school security is also rising, with the US Department of Homeland Security recently awarding a $2.3 million grant to train high school students how to act like first responders in the event of a mass casualty, like a school shooting.

These enhanced security and training mechanisms may seem justified, particularly in the wake of deadly mass school shootings like the massacre in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead. But school shootings are exceedingly rare. As Harvard University instructor David Ropeik writes in The Washington Post:

“The chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is extraordinarily low. Not zero — no risk is. But it’s far lower than many people assume, especially in the glare of heart-wrenching news coverage after an event like Parkland. And it’s far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.”

Still, it’s natural for us to want to protect children from harm—and to get angry when our preferred method of protection doesn’t gain traction. Advocating for increased gun control measures, reporter Nestor Ramos writes in the Boston Globe: “In a nation unwilling to take even modest steps to prevent the next Columbine or Parkland massacre, schools have begun training students to patch up their classmates’ gunshot wounds.”

Gun control is only one possible policy prescription—and even respected researchers doubt that it would do much good in halting gun deaths. There are other “modest steps” we could take, aside from increased regulations and restrictions, that may more effectively reduce gun-related mortality in children—and they cost much less than current school security measures.

A Simple Solution

In states with generous school choice options, like charter schools and vouchers, the teen suicide rate was lower than in states without these options.

A simple but powerful step in saving young lives is to expand school choice options for families. If children feel trapped in an assigned district school and are subjected to daily bullying or humiliation with no escape, it can lead to severe depression and suicidal tendencies. Let’s remember that mass shootings and suicide are intertwined. Compelling research by Corey DeAngelis and Angela Dills shows a striking correlation between more school choice and better mental health. They found that in states with generous school choice options, like charter schools and vouchers, the teen suicide rate was lower than in states without these options.

When parents have greater access to education choices beyond their assigned public school, their children are happier. This is good news for those children—and for the rest of us who don’t need to worry that their depression may turn deadly.

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What Educators Can Learn from “I, Pencil”

I am a learner—ordinary and extraordinary. I am ordinary because, along with breathing and eating, learning is a simple and foundational human action. I am extraordinary because throughout history my drive to discover has led to profound inventions that improve our world, from the wheel to the lightbulb, penicillin to the microchip. Learning is what I do.

Sixty years ago, Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the nation’s oldest free-market think tank, wrote a simple essay called “I, Pencil.” In it, he traces the production of a common pencil, revealing that even for so humble an object, “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” It is through an elaborate, decentralized, emergent, global process that a pencil is born. Read writes:

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding!

If no single person or centralized group of people can produce a lowly pencil, then how could we believe that a single person or group could produce something so magnificent as an educated human? We try. We believe that we can orchestrate others’ learning, breaking their natural will to explore by emphasizing conformity and compliance in early childhood and then filling their minds with the content we deem important. We pat ourselves on the back for being masters of others’ learning, for extirpating ignorance.

Never mind that much of what people learn in this top-down, coercive way is forgotten soon after it is learned. In a revealing study in the early 2000s of the Lawrenceville School, a top-ranked elite US private school, students who had completed a high school science class the previous spring semester were asked to take a watered-down version of the science final exam when they returned to school three months later. Over just one summer, the average grade on the exam fell from a B+ to an F.

We fool ourselves if we think our conventional system of education creates learners. It creates young people who, with varying degrees of success, learn to memorize and regurgitate arbitrary information to the satisfaction of a teacher or a test that is soon forgotten. It creates mimics.

In “I, Pencil,” Read concludes his story with a simple message: “Leave all creative energies uninhibited.” Don’t try to control the production of the pencil. That will most certainly result in an inferior and more costly good—if it could be created at all. Instead of directing the actions of others, let people be free to direct themselves. This leads not only to the human inventions that brighten our world and improve our existence but also to the actualization of personal fulfillment and agency that can only come with freedom.

For self-directed learners, their creative energies are uninhibited. They are not controlled by a mastermind or a group of omniscient rulers who believe they know what is best for others. Self-directed learners retain their creative spirit, that zest for learning which is so apparent in young children but is often eroded through years of forced education. These unschooled learners freely follow their passions and pursue their curiosities, supported by the resources of their families and communities and with a deep sense of personal responsibility.

In a society as rapidly-changing and technologically-fueled as ours, it is a mistake to think that any one person or group of people can decide what others must know to live a meaningful and productive life. According to the World Economic Forum, many of the most in-demand jobs and skillsets did not even exist a decade ago, and the majority of today’s elementary school children will work in jobs that have yet to be invented. We cannot pretend that we know what our children need to know, particularly as our children’s main competitors for the jobs of the future will be mechanical. To compete with robots, our children should be free to direct their own learning tied to their emerging interests in a way that retains their essential human qualities of creativity, ingenuity, and experimentation. Self-directed learning is the pathway to a free and flourishing society.

Free learners accomplish both the ordinary and the extraordinary. By unleashing the innate human drive to explore and discover, to build and synthesize—to learn—we ensure a future of both individual fulfillment and collective progress. Like a pencil, a learner is simple and complex, familiar and unknowable. All learners must be free to write their own story.

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How School Districts Weaponize Child Protection Services Against Uncooperative Parents

Schooling is adept at rooting out individuality and enforcing compliance. In his book, Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky writes: “In fact, the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on—because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

This filtering process begins very early in a child’s schooling as conformity is rewarded and divergence is punished.

Public Schooling Breeds Obedience

Most of us played this game as schoolchildren. We know the rules. The kids who raise their hands, color in the lines, and obey succeed; the kids who challenge the rules struggle. The problem now is that the rules are extending beyond the classroom. Parents are increasingly required to obey, to conform to a school’s demands even if they believe such orders may not be appropriate for their child.

In my advocacy work with homeschooling families across the country, I frequently hear stories from parents who decided to homeschool their kids because schools were pressuring them to comply with various special education plans, push medications onto their children, or submit to other restrictive procedures they felt were not in their child’s best interest. Even more heartbreaking is the growing trend of school officials to unleash child protective services (CPS) on parents, homeschooling or not, who refuse to give in to a district’s demands.

Weaponizing Child Protective Services

An investigative report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost released last month revealed that schools are increasingly using child protective services as a “weapon” against parents. It said:

Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

More troubling, these threats disproportionately target low-income and minority parents. According to the report:

Such families also have fewer resources to fight back. When a family in a wealthy Brooklyn neighborhood learned roughly two years ago that their child’s school had initiated an ACS [New York’s Administration for Children’s Services] investigation against them, they sued the city education department. Parents from lower-income, majority-black and Latino neighborhoods, few of whom can afford that option, say such investigations can be a regular, even expected, part of parenting.

Bullying Proactive Parents

For parents who are unhappy with their child’s school and decide to withdraw their child for homeschooling, threats of child welfare investigations can sometimes turn to actions. In Massachusetts, a mother is reportedly suing the Worcester Public Schools after school officials called the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) on her for alleged “educational neglect,” even though the mother contends that she dutifully filed her homeschooling paperwork for her eight-year-old son mid-year.

Brian Huskie, a public high school teacher and homeschooling father in New York, noted a similar case last year with one of his students. Dissatisfied with the school, the parents decided to remove their daughter from the district, filed the necessary homeschooling paperwork, and were soon visited by child protective services investigating “educational neglect.” Huskie detailed the incident on his blog, writing that the school made a “decision to weaponize CPS against a district family.”

Parents who push back against a district’s recommendations or withdraw their child from school for homeschooling are often trying to ensure their child’s well-being. Questioning various educational interventions and examining alternatives is part of a parent’s job. They should be praised for looking out for their child’s best interest, while schools should be sure that they use social services agencies to investigate serious claims of abuse and neglect—not just district snubs or paperwork quarrels.

If, as Chomsky suggests, many of us have grown acquiescent to power due to our successful schooling, it can be hard to challenge authority. It can be even harder when that authority is strengthened by government force and when we may not have the resources to fight it.

Supporting parents, broadening their education choices, and respecting their decisions are crucial steps in liberating families and curbing government coercion.

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