The Pivot Point of Public Education: New Orleans and The Future of EdTech

Would you eat out of this dumpster of knowledge? Photo by flickr user brewbrooks.

Education is a touchy subject. Most of us seem to agree that as a society, we’re doing it wrong.

Let’s look at public education from a monetary perspective, with a few facts from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • From school year 1988–89 through 2008–09, total elementary and secondary public school revenues increased from $350 billion to $611 billion. The Center notes this is a whopping 74% increase after adjusting for inflation.
  • In 2008, the U.S. spent $10,995 per student on elementary and secondary education (35% higher than the OECD average of $8,169).
  • Total expenditures per student in public elementary and secondary schools rose 46% in constant dollars from 1988–89 through 2008–09.

From these stats only one thing is certain: there is money being spent in education.

The story told by NCES on outcomes is a little more difficult to weed through. In the spring of 2009, more than 75% of high school students graduated on time with a regular diploma, although the numbers vary greatly from state to state. Postsecondary enrollment is also up, with 70% of high school graduates enrolling immediately in college. That’s a debatable improvement, as the long term viability of the country’s universities is also under fire.

From Failure, An Example

In New Orleans, as in much of Louisiana, our students were failing at record rates in 2004. Only 35% of Orleans Parish students were able to pass the state required LEAP test in the year before Hurricane Katrina struck the city. Today, that figure is 58%. Further improvement is still required, by all accounts, but the scores show significant positive changes overall.

One piece of the great education debate raging in classrooms, board rooms, and state rooms is the efficacy of charter schools. NCES notes that from the decade spanning 99-00 to 09–10, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools went from roughly 300,000 to 1.6 million students. During the 2009-2010 school year, approximately 5% of all public schools were charter schools.

Here in Orleans Parish, an astounding 77% of all public school students attend charter schools. Many around the country look to the charter school situation in Orleans Parish as a bit of an experiment. The outcomes of charter schools vary as much as the colors and mascots chosen by their students, but no one can deny that overall, Orleans Parish students have benefited from the change.

Here’s looking at you, kid

It isn’t yet clear which parts of the local upending of the education system were successful and which weren’t, but the world knows things are changing here. So while we have their attention, let’s do more than put on a show.

Local education-focused non-profit 4.0 Schools is looking to every corner of possibility for ways to make a greater, longer lasting impact in education both locally and nationally. One of their areas of focus is technology. They use words like prototyping, unbundling, and have fully embraced the idea of failing fast.

In New Orleans we have the HUB center opening as a social entrepreneurship incubator /work space, and the New Orleans Bioinnovation Center to provide a nurturing home for the blossoming #biotech sector. 4.0 Schools has a great office space in the IP building, but it’s far from being a building of it’s own. Whether or not there’s eventually a separate space for #edtech in the region, it’s clear that 4.0 is positioning itself as the center and banner waver of the movement.

Start-ups in the #edtech sector locally include Kickboard (formerly Drop the Chalk), Kinobi, and Baton Rouge-based Omnicademy.

I spoke with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur on the phone recently who asked me what industries were big in our local start-up scene. Specifically, this entrepreneur probed about education, stating New Orleans is known as the epicenter of education reform and wondering what kind of companies were popping up in the industry. While the ideas and companies are showing great promise, as an overall movement it feels a bit lackluster.

In the confusing mess that is Louisiana’s education system, the opportunities for disruptive technology are endless. Are we taking advantage of them?

Will it be a company from the Silicon Bayou that becomes the Google of the education world, or a company from New York or Silicon Valley?  Let’s make it the former, and give our students a step up while we’re at it.