Rethinking the K–12 Education Crisis

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Rethinking the K–12 Education Crisis

In the October 2014 issue of Trends, we highlighted groundbreaking new research by Harvard's Michael Porter.1 This research shows that America's long-held preeminent competitive position depends on enhancing its institutional strengths and eliminating its institutional weaknesses.

Specifically seizing the opportunities inherent in the Digital Techno-Economic Revolution requires the United States to fundamentally transform 12 institutions identified as "competitive inhibitors."

Some institutions, like tax policy and infrastructure, seem to have clear answers; these mostly require the "will" to act.

However, some institutions, like K-12 education, appear so broken and constrained that neither the solution nor the "implementation approach" seem obvious.

That's why leading-edge thinkers, including Harvard's Clayton Christensen, have been actively encouraging people at all levels to rethink K-12 education at the most fundamental level.


Since the publication of A Nation at Risk more than 30 years ago, the U.S. has been seized by a blizzard of school reform strategies,2 such as:

  • Standards
  • Vouchers
  • Charters
  • Merit pay
  • Alternative teacher certification
  • More money, more data, and more accountability

These strategies have been embraced by districts, states, and, eventually, even the federal government, with great gusto. But if we were to honestly appraise all of this activity, we would have to conclude that the results have not been what we had hoped.

Good schooling is the ticket to middle-class life, but in some urban school districts 40 to 50 percent of students drop out of school. And of those students who do graduate from high school, many are not ready for a four-year college.

Among American schools as a whole, recent studies continue to suggest low levels of cognitive challenge in classrooms: The most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results show that the U.S. ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math, trailing countries such as Estonia and the Slovak Republic.


Reforms such as standards, merit pay, or even charter schools have not fundamentally altered much of how schools are organized or what happens in classrooms: Overall, the U...

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