Charlie Rose and complete Roundtable panel

PBS host Charlie Rose and a distinguished panel tackle the question of how to improve our troubled school systems and provide a better future for our nation's greatest resource, our kids. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford's Roundtable panelists see bold new horizons, old problems in redefining education

Education may be at an "inflection point."  Panelists see a new hope, new challenges in technology, charter schools, and globalization – but can we resolve existing socioeconomic inequities?

The Roundtable discussion was held in Maples Pavilion.

Technology will open up unimaginable new horizons in education – but don't underestimate the power of people.

That was a central message on Stanford's Oct.  22 Roundtable discussion at Maples Pavilion titled "Education Nation 2.0:  Redefining Education Before It Redefines Us."

Moderated by PBS' Charlie Rose, the panel included Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix; Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy; Kim Smith, co-founder and CEO of Bellwether Education Partners and a founding team member of Teach For America; Cory A. Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J.; Claude M. Steele, dean of Stanford's School of Education; and Stanford University President John L. Hennessy.

The emphasis on technology was no surprise, given the presence of Khan and Hastings.  Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, has founded a nonprofit that makes free, high-quality online education available to "anyone, anywhere" in the world (it's visited by 2 million students a month).  Hastings, a former president of the California State Board of Education, launched the movie-streaming and DVD rental-by-mail company that now has 20 million subscribers.

But the optimism was perhaps more unexpected.  Several panelists referred to American education being at "an inflection point," a term from calculus that signals the point where a curve changes direction.

Hastings pointed out that education America has been decrying its educational shortcomings for at least a century and tinkering incrementally with its educational system for just as long.

L.A. Cicero Cory Booker and John Hennessy

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J. and Stanford President John Hennessy

Yet "this is the first generation that is talking about radical new ways to transform society," he said. "Fifty years from now, it's going to be an incredible world."

"The gatekeepers are going away," said Khan, hailing the success of online education. "Even though it might seem very dark right now, in next 10 years we'll see optimistic and promising things."

Reasons for despair are many.  Steele described many students who struggle not only with being behind, but the public perception of deficiency. "Every newspaper tells them they're behind, so they're working under a cloud."

Booker pointed out that we are facing the first generation with lower literacy levels.  "Our greatest national security threat, bar none, is the dumbing down of the population," he said, adding that "growing masses of the population are hitting 18, 19, 20, 21, with very few opportunities" to support families.

Booker spoke about "the earnest Americans, who have played by rules, but have punishing problems nobody thinks about."  While technology may be the answer for tomorrow, the situation today is that "large portions in the cities don't have access to the Internet." 

"My kids in Newark don't have access to computers at home," he said, and noted that single mothers with two jobs or more have little time to oversee homework or offer instruction.

The inflection point is "the recognition of our interdependence," Steele said, in a nation where minorities will soon be the majority of the work force.  Hence, the fate of Latino children in neighboring communities is peripheral for no one, he said. "Our fate is connected with their fate."

Hastings went further in stressing a global interdependence: "We need every kid in Brazil to get a good education. We need kids in South Africa to get a good education."

No one perhaps has crossed international borders the way Khan's academy has.  He called for a focus on nontraditional learning measured by achievement, not "seat time" in a classroom. 

L.A. Cicero Charlie Rose and Salman Khan

PBS' Charlie Rose and Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy

"Twenty-first century jobs are all about creativity.  Can you start with a blank slate and create something that never existed?" he challenged the audience.

He called for education to "decouple the credential from the learning experience," and validate student learning at whatever age it occurs, and whether it comes from a parent or a university.

Khan noted that a key to his academy's success was that the style of learning was  "old school lectures – what Aristotle did with Alexander the Great." 

He began by coaching his cousins, so the approach to teaching "wasn't coming from a publishing house or committee."

Because he uses YouTube videos, students are free to learn at their own pace. Khan recalled one student who watched a video 30 times.  "There's no tutor you could hire that wouldn't be judgmental," he said, but such are the advantages of learning via technology.

Hennessy pointed out that Stanford's own spectacularly popular online engineering courses, offered this fall with online videos and quizzes, have involved hundreds of thousands of people around the world. 

Charter schools as an avenue for reform came up repeatedly throughout the 90-minute session. 

Hastings insistently pointed to them as the direction to the future.  He cited Rocketship charter schools in San Jose that serve low-income Hispanic communities. "Their scores are slightly higher than Palo Alto – and costs are way less," he said.

However, Booker said while some charter schools in Newark were "cathedrals of learning," others "are really, really bad."

The panelists called for better assessment as a key to evaluating educational experiments, such as charter schools. "Far too much school reform has been anecdotal," said Hennessy.

"We've got to be prepared to experiment – parents don't like the idea that we're experimenting on their children, but we are doing it now, and we're not telling them," said Hennessy.

Smith added that reform has been "worse than anecdotal, it's been ideological."  She called for reform that is "non-ideological and very pragmatic."

"To be pragmatic, we need data," she said. "The ideology is part of what's held us back." 

For example, she cited "the ideology that technology in education was bad, because it would replace teachers.  We're just getting past that fear now" with a new generation of teachers who have grown up with technology and are comfortable with it, she said.

Booker called on Americans, including those in the Roundtable audience, not to treat education as "a spectator sport" and "hope that government officials figure it out."

He challenged Californians to give up a favorite television program – not surprisingly, the Newark mayor suggested the popular Jersey Shore  – and use the time instead to mentor youth for four hours a month.

"Everyone is a philanthropist.  If they can't give money, they can give spirit and time." He praised the "venture philanthropists helping to seed innovation and change in public space."