Innovation: What American education needs more than anything

Social studies books skewing history?


With September upon us, the minds of millions of American – children and parents alike -- are thinking back in school.

Public education is in crisis. Scores continue to slip and reforms are under attack. Unfortunately much of the current debate over education policy involves little more than tinkering on the fringes of a warehouse-based, nearly compulsory system rooted in what worked in the late 19th century, saddled with outdated work rules and frozen into place by bureaucracies. 

Accordingly it’s shouldn’t surprise that our current system is not able to prepare ou


Rather than tinker we should be encouraging radical experimentation. We should not be reluctant to toss the existing rules to the curb in search for a new way of doing things.

“There’s an access problem that exists in higher education, finding what you need and being able to get to it,” said Wade Dyke, president of the for-profit Kaplan University. “The economy is changing and higher education has to change with it. Our model can innovate easier than the traditional colleges and universities that don’t have the capacity for change that will help them meet the needs of the kinds of students we service.”

Kaplan was among the first to bring online learning to the university environment. Initially online programs were attacked by their competitors for just about every reason imaginable. Partly, opponents were trying to preserve the status quo but they were also trying to fend off competition.

“Innovation in education is rarely embraced at the beginning,” Dyke said. “It took a decade or more for charter schools to be accepted,” he says because “innovation isn’t embraced in higher education.”

Americans are seeking to solve the puzzle of what makes up a quality education in the new society through innovations like for-profit universities, charters schools, flipped classrooms, blended learning, distance learning, co-ops, and home schooling. 

It’s no longer just about arts and humanities or science and math –– but about producing rounded, educated adults who possess the intellectual and technical know-how needed to get jobs in today’s America.

Despite the criticism of those in the Obama Department of Education and other pro-status quo entities that would like to shut them down, institutions like Kaplan often fit better into the lives of some students.

Indeed, with many adults looking to further their education, the flexibility that for-profit schools offer may help them succeed better than a traditional, ivy-covered non-profit institution.

“Students we see often are working parents and have families," Dyke said. "Some may come out of school and enter the job market at a lower than average salary – and they often have to take on debt” but often realize gains in income upon graduation.

“Institutions like ours should be given more flexibility to help students manage their debt load,” he says. “If we have the ability to help them manage that load, we could help them reduce debt."

That attitude is in sharp contrast to so-called elite non-profit schools which load students down with debt by making implicit promises about future careers upon which they cannot deliver, especially during what has been the most anemic recovery in post-war history. Remember the complaints of the “Occupy” movement – forgiveness of student debt was at the top of their list.

Nonetheless the federal government, with the assistance of some in Congress, has educational innovators in their sights, looking for ways to blacken their reputations and shut them down.

“I don’t know what government is trying to do --- but if they were to use the standards for non-profits that they use for for-profit schools, they would have trouble meeting them,” Dyke says, asserting the proposed rules governing his sector of the education markets are so biased they would “closes off opportunities in the private sector education world” and be “an opportunity killer for students.”

With more than 800 pages of regulation to navigate, schools like Kaplan do not have an easy row to hoe. Their students may not be looking for something that fits the traditional definition of college but does fit their needs, financial ability, and addresses their intellectual curiosity and future workplace desires.

“We take seriously our responsibility to help our students who graduate move on in the career paths they have chosen,” Dyke says, citing healthcare, information technology, business administration, accounting, marketing and other fields where future growth is predicted and which Kaplan focuses on. “Only 40 percent of Americans have the degree they need,” he says, adding that it’s a gap that institutions like his are working to fill.

Rather than eschew educational innovation, policymakers, students, administrators, parents, business leaders, and civic activists should embrace it. To fix the traditional system, which continues to function at lower and lower rates of efficiency, requires a great deal of imagination.

It also means that space needs to be made for schools like Kaplan rather than letting the traditional educational establishment use sharp elbows to push them aside and out of business.

Peter Roff, a former senior writer at United Press International, is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom, an organization that advocates for educational freedom and reform.