Can we give our kids a better education today?

You rarely see any disagreement in the role education plays in a person’s life, and hence in societal wellbeing. Education in general and primary education in particular, has the potential to transform society in a single generation! The US has traditionally led in the area of higher education. A combination of investments in research and development and a protective legal environment has allowed individuals and groups to develop and monetize unimaginable ideas, which have transformed the society we live in today. The bay area has certainly been an integral part of this achievement, perhaps, even at the forefront of this movement. The one aspect which has still not changed at the same pace as the rest of the changes in our society is our primary schools and high schools. What can we do to make it better?

Research has shown that low or decreasing learning achievement (often measured through standardized tests) is due to a combination of factors that include inadequate learning environments, inappropriate teaching methods and frequently unmotivated teachers, and the malnourishment and ill-health of children themselves. Depending on the particular circumstance, one or more of these factors may dominate. Enhancing the quality of education, therefore, must be based on developing educational systems that are comprehensive and responsive to the multiple obstacles to children’s learning. Private and Charter schools have, to some extent been able to adapt and provide this service due to their independence, while public schools, in general, have been lagging behind in their ability to make these changes. Given that most of our kids are in the public school system, making sure that their education keeps pace with society is critical to our ensuring that our kids are prepared for the future.

Several innovative, after school and so called “immersion” programs have evolved to fill this void. Add to this other special programs that are available for us to choose from – special centers for science, math, critical thinking, public speaking etc., you name it. With all these resources available to parents, the question then is can we, as parents, bridge the gap? With the choices we have, can we provide our children with the education which is “comprehensive and responsive”? Is it going to be affordable?

Let’s try to answer one question at a time. But first, we need to have a picture of what is “comprehensive and responsive”. Clearly the answer to this is going to be somewhat subjective. But broadly, a comprehensive education will probably be something which is planned and addresses the child’s physical, mental, emotional and social dimensions. It should help the child demonstrate increasingly sophisticated knowledge, attitudes, skills and practices. At any point in time, it may be possible to come up with what is comprehensive for a child. However, doing so on a continuous basis as the child evolves and as the society changes becomes a challenge. This is where being responsive comes into play. It will make sure that the chosen program evolves with the child and the surroundings to meet the needs.

Each of us will, based on our understanding of our children’s needs, come up with what is best for our child. Given the increasing number of choices we have, it means we have to put the right building blocks. Most of us already do this. Figure out what the school has to offer. What areas are not being focused on – reading skills, public speaking etc. How can we complement this with available choices in programs outside the school hours? Once this is done, we know what we want.

Now, for the question that frequently determines our ability to do what we want – Is this going to be affordable? After all, we all want the best for our kids. And, the best usually comes with a price tag which is much higher than we expect. Luckily for us, through economies of scale and public subsidies, public education is provided to us at a fairly cheap price, if not completely free. The additional stuff we want to provide our kids will cost us more. Often this ends up being high enough that we end up trading off the value it adds to our children with the price tag. To make a customized comprehensive solution affordable we will have to bring some of the economies of scale we’ve seen in other business areas to education. Clearly there is a movement towards this in the higher education space with several colleges moving to online classrooms and many others simply providing courses online for free! Primary school, middle and high school education, however, are special. They all require a very healthy human interaction element, which naturally addresses several dimensions of a comprehensive education our children need in their formative years. Our current technologies have not evolved to the extent that the human element can be replaced by an online classroom experience. However, our technologies have evolved enough to give several these providers, tools to reduce their costs running their businesses so that their services can be brought to the consumers at an affordable price. This is already happening and as time goes, it will become cheaper for us to think of putting such programs together for our kids.

So, while we work on making our public school systems more fungible to change with times more easily, there are certainly areas we can focus on to make use of resources available to us to make the current generation receive the quality of education that we want to, at a more modest price.

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