A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from the Wall Street Journal

By Arne Duncan and Reed Hastings

Student achievement and educational attainment have stagnated in the U.S., and a host of our leading economic competitors are now out-educating us. In a knowledge economy, such stagnation is a slow-acting recipe for obsolescence.

Imagine, though, an online high-school physics course that uses videogame graphics power to teach atomic interactions, or a second-grade online math curriculum that automatically adapts to individual students’ levels of knowledge. All of this will happen. The only question is: Will the U.S. lead the effort or will we follow other countries?

In the past two decades, technology has revolutionized the way Americans communicate, get news, socialize and conduct business. But technology has yet to transform our classrooms. At its full potential, technology could personalize and accelerate instruction for students of all educational levels. And it could provide equitable access to a world-class education for millions of students stuck attending substandard schools in cities, remote rural regions, and tribal reservations.


Other countries are far ahead of us in creating 21st-century classrooms. South Korea, which has the highest college attainment rate in the world, will phase out textbooks and replace them with digital products by 2015. Even Uruguay, a small country not known for leadership in technology, provides a computer for every student.

It is no secret that advances in educational technology have been hailed as breakthroughs in the past, only to disappoint. Too often, the market for educational technology has been inefficient and fragmented. The nation’s 14,000 school districts, more than a few of which have byzantine procurement systems, have been inefficient consumers and have failed to drive consistent demand. And a robust R&D base for improving and refining educational technology has been sadly lacking.

To help remedy those gaps, the Department of Education is launching a unique public-private partnership called Digital Promise.

Digital Promise is a bipartisan initiative that will be sustained primarily by the private sector. It was created by a law signed by President George W. Bush. Federal seed money will fund the program’s start-up, but it will be overseen by a board that includes business executives—such as John Morgridge, the chairman emeritus of Cisco, and Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm—who will work with researchers, educators and other private-sector leaders.

Digital Promise’s aim is ambitious: to advance breakthrough technologies that transform teaching and learning in and out of the classroom, while creating a business environment that rewards innovation and entrepreneurship.

Digital Promise can show leadership in areas such as helping build a more efficient market for education technology. It can also help ameliorate problems such as local school officials lacking access to good information about the effectiveness of various educational technology products, and prospective product developers’ difficulties reaching customers on an economically valuable scale.

Digital Promise will also support new investments in research and development. Today education dedicates a mere 0.2% of total K-12 spending to research and development—compared to 10% or more in biotech, computers and other knowledge-based industries.

To spur more R&D, Digital Promise can promote the rapid testing of new products modeled after Internet companies such as Netflix, which use low-cost experimentation to improve their products. Thankfully, educational technologies already have the potential to quickly identify what works to boost learning and refine tools that need improvement.

Transforming the use of educational technology is vitally important to America’s continued success in the global economy. We are optimistic that with the right ideas the U.S. can become a leader in leveraging the power of technology to promote learning.