07/31/2010 01:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Let Change Happen

The situation in US K12 education is really bad: states are broke and the calcified system is unable to respond creatively; deep inequities persist; and urban centers are unable to elect and sustain effective school governance.

The situation in US K12 education is really good: Race to the Top created more policy reform in eight months than we saw in the last eight years; there is some attention to chronic failure; and voluntary common standards will unleash investment and innovation. And then there is the undeniable press of learning technology--a storm surge behind a stubborn levy of employment contracts, outdated policies, and monopoly certification rights. The sector is a generation behind the rest of the economy, but new learning apps are sneaking into the formal system and even more rapidly into personal technology.

It's official: anyone can learn anything anywhere and usually for free. So what the heck is school for? It's an expensive custodial service, ineffective credentialing service, and varies widely as a motivational and instructional service. For teens, school is primarily a physical manifestation of their social network.

As learning online continues to double every 2-3 years, new learning options will be developed and traditional schools will incorporate blends of online and onsite learning. School will become more relevant, more effective, and more efficient. In places where innovation is encouraged and productivity is sought, we'll see six big shifts:
1. From annual tests to the instant feedback of embedded assessment
2. From age-cohorts slogging through print to individual learning pathways: adaptive lessons, courses, and schools
3. From classrooms and courses to online communities
4. From master schedules to playlists and projects
5. From institutions to individuals: the multi-provider transcript
6. From haphazard systems to School-As-A-Service available 24/7

How does this happen? It's hard to force organizational change; it's possible but uses up a lot of political capital. It's often more productive to let change happen--providing incentives, reducing barriers, granting permission, more judo than sumo.

Options and incentives allow change to occur where and when ready. Statewide choice is a great place to start--simply eliminate school district monopolies and allow students to enroll anywhere (space permitting). If money follows the student to the best option, more good options will develop.

This week we saw traditional civil rights groups protecting the status quo and criticizing the president for providing incentives for states and districts willing to innovate to improve education for low income and minority students. Gap-closing equity advocates like Michael Lomax, co-chair of Education Equality Project, strongly support the President's agenda.

Progress will be uneven but it is inevitable: high expectations, responsive services, efficient delivery, and multiple options. Let change happen.