One evening at an education conference, there was a showing of the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, in which an interviewer asked a mother why she had put her school-age child into an alternative education school. She responded, “Something is going on.” She, like millions of other people, have a vague awareness that something is wrong, something ominous, about our educational system. This mother interviewed in the documentary pointed out that college-graduate students are arriving back home to live with their parents, a truth of the present age.

Education has let down millions of people and it can no longer be candy-coated respectably. But surely all those educators and all that policy and kind intent are not awry. It worked before respectably well, so what’s the real “why” of it all?

There is a lot of finger pointing as to fault. The constantly changing major Federal programs have an appearance of messing everything up, the teacher unions blocking change, the parents checking out and not helping their kids, and on and on. None of this is necessarily the primary truth. In fact, with the amazing ingenuity of the American people, it is simple to argue that the big “Why” has to be none of these things or we would have solved it by now.

The big “Why” is the unlooked-for-issue, the issue no one dare blames so we don’t even look – but, ha! It’s technology infiltration of course. The Internet really does change everything. Yet, that’s just the surface layer.

Now, technology itself is just that, an ingenuity of some kind or other. It’s persuasive. It’s ubiquitous. We love it because it makes us better, cooler, and shows off our smartness. Education technology as its own category of technology is amazing, and goes all the way up the scale into shock-and-awe if you have the time to stop and review it all. That is just about all the Learning Counsel does, so in this we speak from authority. It’s not the individual bits and pieces of the greater tech scene; no, those are great. Rather it’s the sum of the effect, and more interestingly, what technology is missing and unapplied as yet.

Now, there are lots of indicators that the education system is in some ruin. Studies show high numbers of students can’t read well, when in truth that has probably always been so. But it is only recently easy to aggregate large numbers of student data all together at once and see it in statistically significant ways and find lots of anecdotes.

High School graduates are also way under-prepared for college, again something that has probably always been so but is more pronounced, because higher education institutions have had to shift faster to stay ahead and are therefore also going dramatically out of sync with K12, which has been slower to change. 

Politically, what policies coming from what level are attempting to fix these? Was an action taken on a broad or local enough scale or both to truly ameliorate the wrong? Not yet. But there has been a lot of blame, shame, and regret inappropriately so.  

The wealthy of America, and now a large part of the middle class, have already left the traditional public education system for various alternative flavors of education including the fairly new “unschooling” movement. What’s left in public education are a whole lot of low-income students, typically considered a more difficult set to handle because they unfortunately come loaded with more emotional problems and barriers like actual hunger, and special needs students requiring more expensive assistance by specialists.  

It seems patently unfair to thereafter hold public education to blame for what can most appropriately be labeled a cascading failure of our socio-economic system.

Something is going on, and many have been arduously pursuing its definition. What hasn’t been done is to draw together all the competing elements outside of education to look at where education must inevitably go to “fix” it. After all, cascading failures usually begin when one part of the system fails which causes all the nearby nodes to then take up the slack for the failed component.

We can think of Education as a key single point of failure of the human system where it is supposed to have provided a means to keep up with change, to prepare people now and in the next generation to compete adequately.

If the starting “why” is technology and ubiquitous information accessible anytime and anywhere, and those things together are at a faster rate of change than human systems like Education can keep up with, well, you will get a series of failures that “cascade” or fall one after another. Cascading failure, essentially a term most often associated with electrical systems, when applied in this case is signifying that the pressure on the education node in the network is greater than that node is built to withstand.

Fail-over from the system’s shorting-out is falling to alternatives – private schools, unschooling, Charters, and now pure open-market consumerization of learning. The surge shorting out the education system is technology, but not only in use inside education, but also its rate of impact on all other aspects of human life, including its insistency that humans are ready to be employed to further serve it (technology-as-industry). This is a vicious tripling of education’s requirement to meet society’s needs to use technology and serve technology while itself being imbued with technology.

Technology allows teachers and institutions to achieve fantastic levels of individualized instruction with truly independent paths per each student simply because technology in its present and burgeoning state actually can do things beyond human scales. One machine can keep track of, and calculate statistics of, millions of students at once. One program can inexhaustibly redirect lessons with slight alterations to lines of questioning and examples and exercises with infinite patience until a student gets the right answer. 

Our highest-level political officers, perhaps our system, has not created a new human corollary to meet the explosion of technology. Friction of inconceivable proportions has resulted. It is the challenge of our Age and we are not meeting it head on.

What’s important is that we have all lived within a fairly new system, one built on industrial principals for a certain Age, with a focus on learning homogeneity and conformity that won big gains for most of us. We cannot believe that in our single life-time a quantum change would have occurred. We want for our kids what we had, only better. We have not torn down the old building we built, perhaps too enamored with our past success like a former medal-winning athlete or prizefighter. We can’t talk about today because we are stuck in yesterday.

To really come to grips with what we have to do as individual learners, as teachers, as school and district and government leaders, we need to fully analyze the real villain of this cascading failure and come to grips with what would solve it, for real.

Why? Because the technology villain may just also be the savior.