Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Formula for Success

The best thing about these blog posts is that I have the opportunity to talk about whatever is on my mind. I have just finished reading the latest Thomas Friedman book, That Used to Be Us, which he wrote with leading foreign policy thinker Michael Mandelbaum. I confess that I am a huge Tom Friedman fan. He came to Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut to give a talk from his book on September 14th, and I managed to get myself a front row seat thanks to one of our alums who works there (Charter Oak alums are everywhere).

I tell you all this because I think Friedman has identified precisely what is ailing our economy and our country in his new book. His central argument is that we have built the largest and most successful economy in the world because we have had a formula for success and we have worked that formula for most of our history. According to Friedman, the five elements of that formula are: the best infrastructure in the world, the best educated population, government-sponsored research, laws and rules that permit the market economy to flourish but not explode, and an open immigration policy that attracts talent and energy from across the world.

It doesn’t take much thought to see that we are not working our formula now. Our infrastructure is old, budgets for basic research are down, the housing crash was caused by weak controls on the investment industry, and we are closing our doors to immigration. All of these are critical issues, but let’s take a moment to think about whether we are succeeding at having the best educated workforce in the world. Friedman argues that we have always educated our people “beyond the current level of technology whether it is the cotton gin or the supercomputer.” But are we doing that today?

The short answer is no. To begin, our educational system is not adapting itself to the existing technological reality of the world. Twenty-first century jobs are collaborative; technology intensive; driven by science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); and global. So are we systematically moving our children through a curriculum that is rich in STEM education, 21st century technologies, project-based learning (the educational version of workforce collaboration), and global culture (e.g. languages, studying abroad, and international school-to-school partnerships)? While I have seen places where the answer is yes, it is not universally true. It certainly is not yet part of the conscious and intended outcomes of our educational system.

The last time we intentionally drove our system to produce a systematic improvement in outcomes like these occurred in the 1960s in response to Sputnik, the Russian satellite that beat us into earth’s orbit. We called on our educational system to produce scientists and engineers, and it did. Clearly, we need that sort of clarion call again. And I would argue that we must point ourselves towards approaches that are already producing these results. In other words, we need to identify programs that successfully address these needs and reproduce them in quantity across the educational landscape.

I have argued before that online learning mirrors the 21st century workplace. Students must use communication technologies to produce projects, have discussions, and receive mentoring from their instructors and peers. This is precisely what is occurring today in the 21st century workplace. To its great benefit, the online classroom is diverse, open to those with ability challenges, and accessible from anywhere that has access to the Internet. It does not require enormous investments in new infrastructure and it is scalable. We can intentionally grow this approach to education and use it to increase the educational attainment of our people.

So as Charter Oak works to improve its programs, services, and systems, we take satisfaction in knowing that we are doing our part to keep one element of America’s formula for success vibrant: we are committed to providing a level of education that surpasses the technology of our day.