The Easiest Way to Fix Our Education System: Tell Entrepreneurs to Do Their Homework

Editor's Note: This article is part of a special week of discussion PolicyMic is hosting with Noodle and EdTech Women around online education. Read more about the content week here. This piece was co-authored by Barbara Kurshan and Cat McManus

Ever get the sense that everyone is trying to change education these days? New ideas are a dime a dozen, with everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Bill Gates jumping into the education market to get a piece of the action. Charter schools, flipped and blended classrooms, MOOCs, and virtual schools (including the totally-online Western Governor’s University), not to mention a bevy of software programs, devices, and web-based services, are seeing increases in interest and funding from private individuals, philanthropies and corporations.

What entrepreneurial thinkers and doers working in the education space are hoping for these days is to find a truly disruptive innovation: a new idea or practice — often but not always undergirded by technology — with the power to ease one or more of a host of problems that plague education.

But how do we really know if these developments have any merit when it comes to improving learning outcomes? Just because a lot of people download an app, students spend more time playing a computer-based “learning game,” or a school posts a year of math score increases, does not make an initiative a success. More importantly, how can we predict whether an innovation is likely to have an impact?

Well, to be truly disruptive, you’ve got to do your homework first.

We will remain unable to meaningfully address the critically pressing educational issues of the day — except virtually by accident — unless we commit to marrying research to practice. Instead of simply bombarding the marketplace with product after product to see what sticks, innovators must lean on the extensive experience of classroom practitioners and research executed by reputable non-partisan institutes, and more importantly, research-oriented graduate schools of education. Innovators at all levels, from corporate and professional development experts to kindergarten and special education teachers to museum educators must demand that every proposed intervention, product or service have a theory of action behind it. That is: Why do we believe what is happening — based on what we know through empirical study — is happening? And more significantly, what does this suggest for how a given intervention should be structured?

Many innovations focus on improving learning outcomes on state and federally administered tests. Improved test scores or meeting benchmarks are not hallmarks of success except in the narrowest sense; our educational system requires a far broader focus. This might include addressing the unsustainable expense of higher education, especially for low-income students; teaching skills for the 21st century; or thinking creatively about classroom management, school finance, or teacher evaluations.

Research unearths valuable information that can give an innovator power to make a product with oomph (and with earning potential). None of us wants to experiment on our children, but that’s exactly what we do when we let un- or minimally-tested products into classrooms, especially products not grounded in research.

People like technology: It’s new and exciting and often delivered through a sexy, sleek device like an iPad or the Amplify tablet. But technology ≠ innovation. Innovation for the 21st century, in education, will need to capitalize on evidence based research in order to engage creative researchers, innovative teachers, all learners and pioneering entrepreneurs.  

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Barbara Kurshan

Dr. Barbara (Bobbi) Kurshan has honed her vision of “what can be” using technology while supporting the growth of new education companies and developing innovative software products. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Academic Innovation at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania where she runs the EdTech Business Plan Competition and is building an ecosystem for researchers, teaches, investors and entrepreneurs. Previously, as the President of Educorp Consultants Corporation she provided strategic consulting in the areas of education, technology and innovation; and as the Executive Vice President of WorldSage, a consortium of for-profit higher education institutions in the EU to address education for the 21st century, she created a global network of tertiary institutions in the EU. As the past Executive Director of Curriki she helped to build one of the most innovative and robust global open source education communities. Dr. Kurshan has previously served as the Co-CEO of Core Learning, an education investment fund, and the Chief Academic Officer of bigchalk. She currently serves on the Board of several education companies. Dr. Kurshan has been involved with education and technology for over 30 years. She developed the first children’s software products for Microsoft and also created award-winning products for McGraw-Hill, Apple, CCC (Pearson) and others. As a professor, she helped students research the impact of technology on learning. Numerous publishing credits include topics that explore women’s attitudes toward technology, how kids learn using computers, OER, new ways of learning through understanding and innovation in education.

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