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Mom, my AI tutor deleted my homework
America’s K-12 public school system is failing, we should embrace new technology and policies to restore it
Marta was worried about college as she started her senior year at Wheatley High School in Houston. Wheatley is located in the Fifth Ward of Houston, a poorer area of the city. When Marta was in eighth grade, COVID-19 hit in the spring. Classes were “remote” but many classmates didn’t have laptops, reliable internet, or a place to stay during the day. So, school effectively ended in March that year. As a freshman, Marta began classes remotely (the system was better but still nothing like in-person attendance) before going in-person that winter. The rest of her freshman year and sophomore year were not “normal”, with periodic outbreaks, closings, and curtailed athletics. It wasn’t until her junior year that things regained a semblance of normalcy. Now she was preparing for the SAT but felt unprepared. She was also worried about affording college, her family barely made ends meet.
State of K-12 education
Marta’s story, though fictional, is not unlike millions of American K-12 students who had their studies upended by COVID-19. The lockdowns had a dramatic, negative effect on student’s test scores. However, like many other trends in American life, scores in reading and math had been stagnating or declining the prior decade.
K-12 education is not giving all Americans an equal opportunity at life. The Supreme Court recently outlawed race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Regardless of your opinion of the ruling, the data are clear that K-12 schools do not fairly prepare students for college. Black and Latino students score worse on the SAT and Asian students score better than a normal statistical distribution would dictate. Affirmative action in college, after high school, is kind of like trying to fix a collapsed house rather than repairing its cracked foundation years ago.
Principals for a new system
It’s clear that the current system of K-12 education is broken in America. Before proposing a new system, it’s useful to outline the first principals of such a system.
1. School is a social education – How you learn to interact with your fellow classmates is at least as important as what you learn.
2. A human teacher is essential – There is no substitute for an empathetic authority figure who advocates on students’ behalf. They don’t necessarily need to deliver the learning content.
3. Diversity of options – It is a strength to have montessori schools, magnet programs, religious schools, and other private schools alongside public options
4. Not all students will go to college – Vocational tracks are essential.
5. Leverage new technology – Most school curricula were developed in the 20th century, but 21stcentury technologies, like AI tutors and self-paced apps, can be cheaper and better than old methods.
American education for the 21st century
AI will be ubiquitous in the world our children will grow up in. Teaching students how to use AI and integrating it into schooling is the way forward. Every student should have a personal AI tutor that adapts to their learning style and knows far more than any human ever could. Lessons should be delivered via games or other innovative digital platforms. Human skills like resilience, empathy and socializing will be more important in a world dominated by AI, so those things should be emphasized.
Test scores became the focus of education after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Test scores should not be the goal in the future. Schooling should have three objectives. First, preparing students with useful skills that America needs. Second, unlike the past when facts and rote memorization were valuable, communication, reasoning and empathy will be crucial when AI can answer any question. Third, K-12 education should maximize the American Dream and opportunity. In the future, there should be no statistical difference between racial groups SAT scores after high school.
A strength of America has always been its diverse and competitive markets; the best solution is arrived at naturally. The same is true of K-12 education. There are 50 state laboratories and private school models that should be allowed to innovate and compete for the best educational approach for the 21stcentury. School choice, the ability for parents to take public education funding with them to any school, should be the law of the land to promote innovation. As of 2023, 71% of the public supported school choice.
The world is changing faster and faster so it’s impossible to predict what the workforce will need in 2040. But by teaching communication, empathy, and reasoning we will set students up for success, no matter what the future holds.
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