Humanist EDge: Education Innovators Shoot for the Moon

Despite decades of research, standardized testing, and increased spending, educational outcomes in the United States have stagnated behind other developed countries. Literacy rates and reading skills of our nation’s seventeen-year-olds have demonstrated little to no growth since the 1970s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And when measuring educational gains in numeracy and literacy since the 1950s, the US has had some of the slowest progress among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As other developed countries have realized significant gains in the educational attainment and practical skills of their youth, the United States lags behind.

In order to generate innovative, evidence-based solutions to the nation’s stagnating educational outcomes, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute launched “A Moonshot for Kids,” a year-long collaborative project to explore potential research and development investments in K-12 education. The centerpiece of the project was a Shark Tank-style competition hosted in Washington, DC, last week at which ten finalists presented their bold proposals to achieve an array of ambitious educational goals to a room of judges, educators, and policy wonks. Contest participants were asked to target their proposals to specific, measurable outcomes, like decreasing the number of children reading below basic level, getting more students individualized teacher feedback, doubling the number of eighth graders who can write a persuasive essay, achieving universal college and career counseling for all students before the ninth grade, and doubling the number of young women in STEM fields.

Whereas broad federal policy proposals might be the expected solution to these challenges, the competition took a more enterprising approach. Many of the finalists were founders and/or executives of nonprofits and startups focused on educational innovations, and their proposals focused on utilizing emerging technologies and learning methods to empower both students and teachers. The approach was emblematic of the bipartisan partnership between CAP, which advocates for progressive policy solutions, and the Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank. “We disagree with Fordham on a number of education policy issues” noted Ulrich Boser, senior fellow in K-12 education at CAP and the moderator for the competition. “Vouchers, gifted and talented programs, charter schools, the list goes on. But on this issue of having a large investment in education development…we see eye to eye.”

Each of the finalist’s proposals merit exploration and potential investment, and the panel of judges—composed of nationally recognized teachers and policy leaders from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, Schmidt Futures, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education—had the monumental challenge of picking the $10,000 winner from the pool of brilliant proposals. The task proved to be impossible, and the judges instead elected to double the prize money and select two winners.

One winning idea was presented by Ogden Morse, the founder and chief academic officer of FineTune, a company specializing in developing products to support instruction and learning in reading and writing in grades six through twelve. Morse’s “moonshot” proposal is to utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop an application that “guides students through the essay writing process with as much accuracy and personalization as a one-on-one interaction with their teacher.” With expanding class sizes limiting the amount of individualized feedback students receive from their teachers, this application would be an invaluable tool to help students structure their ideas, address relevant questions, and get started planning their persuasive essays. Although smaller class sizes may be the preferred solution to increasing teacher feedback on assignments, such an application would undoubtedly be a helpful tool in the hands of students and perhaps writers in general. I would have saved many late nights of writing in school if I had a tool at my disposal to help get the ideas out of my head and down on paper.

The other prize was awarded to Jayda Batchelder, founding executive director of Education Opens Doors, for her proposal to achieve high-quality college and career counseling for all students before the ninth grade. Batchelder and her organization have already begun implementing their in-classroom curriculum in Texas, equipping over 45,000 students to date with the knowledge they need to pursue an informed future. Considering that the average American student receives just thirty-eight minutes of college and career counseling during their K-12 schooling, and considering the amount of avoidable student debt people acquire while pursuing their education, we clearly need to focus on preparing children for the difficult decisions they face following high school graduation.

It was inspiring to hear from so many brilliant people who have made educational attainment and accessibility a top priority, and I hope each of the ideas presented is implemented in our national education system. Classrooms and teaching methods have remained very much the same in the past century, and our lack of forward progress makes it clear that it’s time for bold new approaches to prepare our nation’s children for the future. It’s time for a few moonshots.