WHAT WE'RE READING: Getting Smart by Tom Vander Ark. Tom is a John-the-Baptist-like figure in school reform. He's been hammering away at how to improve graduation rates and educate kids for the 21st century for more than a decade since he helped Bill Gates set in motion the foundation's first edu-strategy. Getting Smart is Tom's manifesto, a spirited description of how technology can personalize learning, charged with examples of promising efforts (Edmodo, MangaHigh, KIPP, the Khan Academy and others). He's a clear and forceful writer. The book is unburdened by ambiguities. And that's both a virtue--and a problem.
To spark a revolution, every movement needs evangelists. But for movements to create real change, they need to face the gritty realities that make change hard. Tom doesn't describe the practical difficulties in using technology to improve education: that we are still learning, through trial and at a cost, how to build tools to help kids learn. He cheers private market efforts in education--as does EdSurge. Yet he skirts any references to the devils that do plague those efforts: for-profit companies must make a profit. They must advertise the advantages of their products and minimize their shortcomings. That vaults expectations for such tools sky-high. When the tools fall short, educators, parents and students become bitterly disappointed.
Getting Smart would help its cause by adding a leavening dose of reality. Tom makes passing reference to the fact that his venture firm, Learn Capital, invests in a number of the companies he writes about. Diligent readers will find those companies listed in the appendix. But as a long-time journalist, Betsy would be happier if he reminded readers in context which companies he's invested in or consults with, starting with MangaHigh and Edmodo. Both seem like promising ventures and smart investments; he need not be coy about his involvement.