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The state of K-12 education is miscommunication

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. (If you missed my colleague James daSilva’s excellent coverage of the K-12 education and workforce track, you can read it.) It was fascinating, and a bit disorienting, to hear some of the wealthiest people in the country talking about issues I think about every day: namely, the state of K-12 education and the training and preparation of the next generations of the American workforce.

My next stop was the Software & Information Industry Association Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco, where I joined professional peers in hearing product-development news from some of the smartest minds in education. The two events were alike in theme but strikingly different in tone. The big take-away from hearing about the state of American education from education professionals versus non-education professionals is that the two groups appear to be talking past each other. Indeed, it appears they are hardly having the same conversation.

It’s reassuring to know that K-12 education and workforce preparedness concern hedge fund managers and Fortune 500 executives, but at Milken, the diagnosis was dire: The U.S. is falling behind its Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development peers in achievement in reading, math literacy and science education. As a consequence, our position in the global power hierarchy is in jeopardy. We risk falling behind to a degree that will be impossible to make up, because the education system is broken.

Everywhere was the message that we are under-emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math preparation, that Generation Y doesn’t complete college or does so lacking critical-thinking skills and the ability to synthesize complex information — skills necessary for the 21st-century economy. The prescription? More rigorous teacher training, better testing and game-based learning. (“Find these kids where they are — on their Xbox.”)

That idea of game-based learning was the common thread linking the two events. The SIIA event seemed largely about using technology to make learning fun for kids. Several entrants in SIIA’s annual innovation-incubator showcase are game-based science startups. Overall, the tone of the Ed Tech Industry Summit was more optimistic. Despite budget crunches induced by the recession, vendors are navigating budget shortfalls and helping educators find funding to implement solutions. The diversifying ecosystem of public, charter and independent schools is taking on the challenge of meeting divergent learning needs of all children along the socioeconomic spectrum.

Everyone acknowledges that the environment is tough, but I’m no longer hearing from vendors that “flat is the new up.” There are decent expectations for growth. The main areas of concern at the SIIA event seemed to be a dramatic rise in diagnoses of special needs, particularly autism, and the difficulty of getting students lower down the economic ladder on a path to success in college when parental support is tepid or absent.

There’s another point of view, of course, and that is that of the educator. I’ll address that view, and offer advice for both sides, in my next post.