The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform

Below is an excerpt from an op-ed written in The Wall Street Journal about educational reform by Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., which owns The Wall Street Journal and a new Education Division. The entire article can be read here:

If you read the front pages of the New York Times, they will tell you that technology's promise has not yet been realized in terms of student performance. My answer is, of course not. If we simply attached computers to leeches, medicine wouldn't be any better today than it was in the 19th century either.

You don't get change by plugging in computers to schools designed for the industrial age. You get it by deploying technology that rewrites the rules of the game.

Our children are growing up in Steve Jobs's world. They are eager to learn and quick to embrace new technology. Outside the classroom they take technology for granted—in what they read, in how they listen to music, in how they shop.

The minute they step back into their classrooms, it's like going back in time. The top-down, one-size-fits-all approach frustrates the ones who could do more advanced work. And it leaves further and further behind those who need extra help to keep up.

Teachers are likewise stunted. Some excel at lecturing. Some are better at giving personal attention. With the right structure, they would work together like a football team. With the existing structure, they are treated like interchangeable cogs.

The point I'm making isn't about Apple. It's about our colossal failure of imagination. The education industry bears a good part of the blame here. It continues to sell its tired wares into a failing status quo. It settles for mediocre charter schools. And its answer seems to be throwing more money at the problem.

Three decades ago, the Department of Education released a report noting that if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our mediocre education system on us, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war." In the three decades since, per-pupil spending on K-12 education has doubled—while achievement scores have been flat.

That's where technology comes in. Just as the iPod compelled the music industry to accommodate its customers, we can use technology to force the education system to meet the needs of the individual student.

For example, say I was trying to teach a 10-year-old about Bernoulli's principle. According to this principle, when speed is high, pressure is low. Sounds dry and abstract.

But what if I could bring this lesson alive by linking it to the soccer star Roberto Carlos—showing students a video clip that illustrates how his famous curved shot is an example of Bernoulli's principle in action. Then suppose I followed up with an engineer from Boeing—who explained why this same principle is critical in aviation and introduced an app that could help students master the concept through playing a game. Finally, assessment tools would give teachers instant feedback about how well their students had mastered the material.

Better doesn't have to be more expensive, either. For example, Georgia state legislators now spend $40 million a year on textbooks. They are considering iPads to save money and boost performance. Unlike a textbook—which is outdated the moment it is printed—digital texts can be updated.

Textbooks aren't the only area for savings. Rocketship charter schools in San Jose, Calif., use a model that combines traditional classroom learning with tutor-led small groups and individualized instruction through online technology. So far the mix has brought higher performance with lower costs—savings that can be used to pay teachers more, hire tutors, and so on.

Let's be clear: Technology is never going to replace teachers. What technology can do is give teachers closer, more human and more rewarding interactions with their students. It can give children lesson plans tailored to their pace and needs. And it can give school districts a way to improve performance in the classroom while saving their taxpayers money.