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Policy | Viewpoint

Education Can't Be 'Hacked'

Quick fixes and top-down disruptions are tempting, but true change is a long, messy, contentious process.

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Christopher Piehler

We are a nation of hackers. Yes, some Americans spend their time infiltrating other people’s computer systems for fun, profit or revenge. (We actually ran a gripping article about that type of hacker last month.) But the larger and more benign group is the life hackers who, inspired by the culture of computer programmers, are in constant pursuit of tricks or shortcuts to increase their productivity and efficiency. Life hacking’s entry into the mainstream has been helped along by widely viewed videos of TED Talks, such as this one about the proper way to use a paper towel, which walks a fine line between utility and self-parody.

With so many hacks out there to deal with the small problems, tech entrepreneurs have become tempted to try hacking the big problems — like public education. In higher ed, we’ve seen the MOOC craze come and go. On the K-12 side, a recent New Yorker article detailed what happened when the unlikely alliance of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Democratic Mayor Corey Booker and Facebook boy genius Mark Zuckerberg tried to hack the Newark, NJ, public school system. The article is eye-opening, but in true New Yorker fashion, it’s also really long, so I’ll sum it up.

After meeting with Booker and Christie, Zuckerberg agreed to give Newark schools $100 million through his Startup:Education Foundation. Booker, Christie and Zuckerberg all wanted to improve the level of education that kids were getting, but in true hacker fashion, they decided that dealing with the existing community structure was too inefficient, so they sought to impose change from the top down. In the absence of community input, they turned to consultants, who were paid millions of Zuckerberg’s dollars. Ultimately there was enormous community backlash against the replacement of the lowest-performing public schools with charters, and with the election of a new mayor, the reform efforts are now in limbo.

Education can’t be hacked, but I believe that educators can learn something else from programmer culture: the concept of iteration. Rather than considering a buggy beta a failure, programmers look at it as a chance to make a new, better version that builds on what they learned from the beta. In an educational system increasingly dominated by the specter of high stakes testing, I think we could all stand a bit more iteration.  

About the Author

Christopher Piehler is editor in chief of THE Journal.

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