opinion

Smart Cities That Work For Everyone

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This is a preview of Tom Vander Ark's new book, Smart Cities That Work for Everyone  

The last two decades illustrate the benefits and shortcomings of policy-driven efforts at improving education. Federal and state policymakers have attempted to make improvements to the schools we inherited. While a few districts and networks have optimized the old system, it’s clear that the basic model—particularly secondary education—is simply obsolete.

Grouping kids by birthday and shoving them through 180 days of content just doesn’t prepare most young people for their world.

New tools and schools make clear the potential for innovation. New ways to personalize learning, encourage more student agency, and extend the reach of great teachers signal the potential for step function improvement in outcomes (i.e., a much larger percentage of young people career and citizenship ready).

You can’t legislate innovation–it takes leadership and capacity and that most frequently happens in an urban ecosystem. Edward Glaeser,  an economist at Harvard University, calls the city “humanity’s greatest creation and our best hope for the future.” Cities are where smart people gather to do important work. Cities are where poor people go in search of opportunity. Cities are where the majority of the world’s population lives–and that is why it is so important to understand the urban innovation formula.

Poverty and innovation share two characteristics—they cluster and create feedback loops. Poverty traps generations of people in a vicious cycle of low expectations, emaciated learning opportunities, and traumatic conditions. Innovation clusters in ecosystems feeding off of a virtuous cycle of talent, incentives, and learning opportunities. Palo Alto is one of the most innovative zip codes in the world but cross Highway 101 into East Palo Alto and you see the gravity of poverty.

State policy can’t eliminate poverty or dictate innovation but it can create a pro-achievement, pro-growth, pro-innovation conditions. Is it possible to be pro-business and pro-education? It’s not only possible but it will be a critical success factor for states going forward.

“An economy’s ability to grow over time—its ability to innovate and raise both productivity and real incomes—is strongly tied to the quality of education provided to the vast majority of workers,” said  Eric Hanushek, a fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

And, as underscored by a recent OECD report, it’s not years of education but competency that counts.

Seven Keys. We are in the early innings of a learning revolution that will make it possible to better prepare a larger percentage of young people for careers and citizenship and make it possible for adults to make several successful career transitions.

My new book, Smart Cities That Work for Everyone (#SmartCities) outlines seven keys to education and employment. With help from more than 50 contributors, Smart Cities suggests that state policy can help, but the primary thesis is that dramatically improving learning requires local leadership, productive partnerships, a commitment to talent development, aligned investment, and the capacity to incubate new tools and schools. It’s not a simple formula but it is one that, with local adaptations, every city can embrace.

In the long run, it’s all about learning: Learning is the best formula for promoting economic growth, reducing the crippling effects of poverty, and improving safety and security.

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Cities that Work for Everyone, and CEO of Getting Smart, a learning advocacy firm. He's also a partner in Learn Capital, which is an investor in EdSurge. 

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