this century’s defining issue

Ask any American about education, and they’re worried. Worried about the future of their child. The massive costs of college education. The economic vitality of their community. The very future of our country.

The American system for preparing young people to lead productive and prosperous lives is clearly badly broken.”

— Pathways to Prosperity, Harvard Graduate School of Education, February, 2011

By all measures, the 21st Century should be a glorious period for our country. America is a nation built on innovation and entrepreneurship. We excel in higher education, Nobel Prizes, inventions, patents, and bold entrepreneurs. The old economy — based on routine, structured jobs — has faded away. This century’s dynamic new economy offers countless opportunities to people who can create ways to add value. We’re living in a time that plays to our strength.

So what’s wrong with this picture, and why is our outlook so bleak?

Having spent my thirty-year career as an entrepreneur and as a venture capitalist, I know what skills will be valued in the 21st Century  – innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity, complex problem-solving, productive collaboration, sound decision-making, passion, and grit. And when I see how kids are being educated in America today, I’m shocked. The very capabilities our kids desperately need for their future are nowhere on the radar screen in US classrooms. Worse yet, we’re crushing these characteristics out of our kids, as schools place increasing priority on rote memorization, superficial learning, and teaching to increasingly-ubiquitous high-stakes tests.  This focus isn’t the choice of our teachers or our students, but is the result of widely-held misunderstandings about what skills our kids will need to thrive in an economy completely different from the economy that shaped our current education system.

How can this be? How can what was once the world’s best K-12 education system be actively impairing our kids’ ability to compete in the new economy?

If you look at almost any article on education, it will say, in a tone of alarm, that America is falling behind in education (it is), and point to the fact that we’re now 17th in the world on standardized PISA (Programme for International Student Assessments) tests. The clear, but completely misguided, conclusion is that we need to gear up our schools to close the gap between us and PISA leaders, like Shanghai and Korea.  Respected columnists suggest it’s time for eleven-month-a-year, six-day-a-week school year, giving teachers more time to crack the whip on mastering multiple choice questions. And the ultimate irony? Shanghai regularly sends its leaders to the US to learn how to develop bold thinkers, instead of the robots that a drill-it-til-you-kill-it education system produces.

We collectively are pushing our education system in the exact wrong direction, and beating on it to go faster. When we should be educating our students to be bold problem solvers, we’re pushing them to memorize and regurgitate. When they’ll be entering an economy where their best job opportunity will be the job they can create, we’re educating them to be mindless hoop-jumpers. And until parents, government officials, and the press wise up, educators will be pushed to do the wrong thing, and our children’s futures will be jeopardized.

Every parent needs to understand the impact that “education” is having on their child. You need to understand how your child’s school approaches education, and whether it’s beneficial or harmful. Don’t trust things to be right. Lots of homework and testing don’t equate to an education that will prepare your child for the 21st Century. Pushing your child to get all A’s may actually increase the chance that they’re still living with you at age 25, with no direction or employment prospects. We live in a world that values creativity, innovation, and passion; don’t let your child’s education crush those capabilities out of her.

So I’m going on a journey, and hope you’ll join me. I’ll be blogging regularly, addressing a range of important education issues. I’ll be supporting initiatives (both for-profit and non-profit) that have the potential to improve the educational experience of millions of children. And I’ll be doing a documentary on educating children for the 21st Century, due out in the first half of 2015. But I need your help — comments, suggestions, pointers to interesting organizations or people, and experiences you’ve had.  Use your Twitter and Facebook networks to tell other people about this initiative. The key to changing education in the US is informed active parents, so please help.