5 Disruptive Education Trends That Address American Inequality

Fixing how we teach our children is of paramount importance. What if the solution also started to fix America’s broader socioeconomic problems? New ways of thinking about edtech just might start that process.

5 Disruptive Education Trends That Address American Inequality
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At the root of many American problems lies an ineffective and outdated education system that is failing our students. Inequality and education have always been inextricably linked, and if we don’t fix education, we don’t fix inequality.


Simply put, our citizens are not being prepared to compete in today’s global, hyper-connected economy, and, for low-income students, the outlook is especially grim. A recent Boston College study of 57 countries showed, among other unflattering comparisons, that only 7% of U.S. students (versus 48% of students in Singapore) reached the advanced level in eighth-grade math. Meanwhile, a 2012 Brookings study showed that “a whopping 43% of job openings require a bachelor’s degree or more.” Yet, only 30% of Americans and 15% of Latinos, our nation’s fastest growing demographic, have the credentials.

Yet amidst all these gloomy statistics are rays of light. Five disruptive trends are breaking old educational habits and making way for a system that will better prepare our young people for the future while leveling the socioeconomic playing field.

1: Creating adaptive and optimized learning environments

If Google search results and Pandora music recommendations can learn our patterns and preferences, why not education software? This question led the founders of Knewton to develop adaptive learning software that uses algorithms to provide personalized content for each student that shifts according to his or her personal strengths and weaknesses. Founded in 2008, Knewton is employed in schools spanning 190 countries, and they recently raised $33M for further expansion.

“Optimized learning” adapts not only the content, but also the format, according to a student’s learning style. For example, when learning to read, some students respond better to visuals, while others decode words through phonics. The implications of adaptive and optimized learning are huge. Currently K-12 teachers can only teach at a speed suitable for one third of the class, and the pace is either too fast or too slow for the students at opposing ends of the bell curve. With adaptive learning, each student receives a tailored lesson. Access to this type of customized education may have the greatest impact on low-income schools, where classes are often overcrowded and teachers under-resourced.

By using education optimization, students can benefit from a “blended classroom” experience that would allow them to alternate between adaptive software and small-group learning. The Bloomberg- funded School of One, operating inside three New York City public middle schools, and Rocketship Education, a small network of charter schools serving a primarily low-income immigrant community in San Jose, California, are already adapting “blended classroom” learning. Teachers are more capable of focusing their energy on fostering critical thinking skills and providing extra help to struggling students.

The technology used in these classrooms also creates a wealth of data about each student so that teachers can easily track a child’s progress across classrooms and schools, which could potentially help level the educational playing field.


2: Bringing education everywhere through distance learning and massive open online courses (MOOCs)

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) take the best professors at the best universities and make their courses available online around the world. The movement was launched when two Stanford professors took their famous Artificial Intelligence class public. While 23,000 students completed the course’s requirements, just 50 students actually sat in the classroom. The professors recognized the power of this idea and left Stanford last year to start Udacity, which delivers free, non-credit online classes.

They aren’t alone. Coursera was created in 2012 to align elite institutions like Stanford, Princeton, Penn, Caltech, and others to offer free-of-charge courses online. Forbes recently named 2tor, another online higher education company, the number two startup changing the world, after Instagram..

But only with for-credit courses can we address the preparation and income gap. Less than a year after Udacity’s founding, MOOCs for credit is becoming a reality. In an arrangement with a commercial company, dozens of public universities plan to offer MOOC2Degree–free introductory for-credit courses open to students worldwide. The hope is that those who pass will eventually pay tuition to complete a degree-granting program. There is hope in this model for even more free or low cost access in the future.

3: Flipping the classroom to better utilize resources

“Flipped classrooms” rethink traditional models of classwork and homework. Teachers are valuable and need to be better utilized. In a “flipped classroom,” passive activities, like lectures, are reserved for homework, while in-class time is used for collaborative and personal interactions between teachers and students. Teachers can post their own lectures online and direct students to other online resources, such as those provided by Khan Academy, which offers more than 2800 educational videos covering a multitude of disciplines. Students can pause, rewind, and re-watch as needed. Any questions can be noted and addressed the following day.

Since students learn the basics outside the classroom and focus on application while in class. Teachers can concentrate on developing “soft skills,” such as critical thinking and problem solving, which are in high demand by 21st century employers. Teachers can also spend more one-on-one time with struggling students and assign students who have grasped concepts to work as in-class ‘tutors’. In addition, this approach enables parents to engage in their child’s education at home, making the more equipped to track their child’s progress.

This model benefits students of lower socio-economic backgrounds. Students with parents who are unable, because of night jobs or low-levels of education, to help with homework can access supportive online materials. Students in flipped classrooms don’t have to miss lectures when they can’t physically attend school–a problem that disproportionately correlates with low-income families.


4: Using interactive content and gaming to engage students

The textbook will soon be dead. Interactive multimedia materials are the future. As part of this shift from passive to active learning, many education technology products are becoming increasingly “gamified” to present curriculum in more dynamic, engaging, and familiar ways.

Acknowledging the potential of this trend, the Gates Foundation gave the MIT Education Arcade $3 million to work with Filament Games to create an online role-playing video game in which a large number of players interact in a virtual world. Think: World of Warcraft. According to the director of the program, Professor Eric Klopfer, “This genre of games is uniquely suited to teaching the nature of science inquiry because they provide collaborative, self-directed learning situations. Players take on the roles of scientists, engineers, mathematicians to explore and explain a robust virtual world.” In so doing, they deepen their subject matter knowledge and build 21st century skills.

5: Connecting with tutors and sharing skills online

The Internet allows anyone to be a teacher, any place to be a classroom, and anybody to be a student. One can see this with the rise of peer-to-peer learning through the millions of YouTube videos of amateur cooks imparting their favorite recipes, kids teaching each other dance moves, and tech geeks demonstrating how to fix your own iPhone screen. Companies such as Skillshare and EduFire are popping up to formalize this peer-to-peer learning.

The Digital Age has also led to the rise of online, on-demand tutoring–often for free. Any struggling student (or non-student, for that matter) now has resources at his disposal. Quizlet was founded in 2005 by 15-year-old Andrew Sutherland when he needed to learn vocabulary for his high-school French class. Sutherland built Quizlet and shared it with his friends. Its popularity spread rapidly, and it is now one of the world’s largest educational websites with 1.3 study sessions daily.

Education has long been the driver of America’s shared prosperity. Often spotlighted are educational programs that seek to alter the status quo, but there is no silver bullet that can instantly fix what has been more than four decades of growing income inequality. However, these five trends and technologies are tools that we can use to effect much-needed change. They hold great promise for re-establishing education as the “great equalizer.”

About the author

Ben Hecht has been the President & CEO of Living Cities since July 2007. Since that time, the organization has adopted a broad, integrative agenda that harnesses the collective knowledge of its 22 member foundations and financial institutions to benefit low income people and the cities where they live.