Editor's Note: Sir James Dyson is a British industrial designer and founder ofDyson Company. Fareed Zakaria recently interviewed
By James Dyson - Special to CNN
Last week, President Obama granted 10 states freedom from the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The decade-old act holds states to a 2014 deadline to have all students deemed proficient in reading and math.
Even as the standards were enacted, its authors weren’t optimistic. They’d hoped the U.S. Congress would have stepped in to develop a more robust educational measure. The aim of the act was noble: To ensure American students were educated to a level at which they could compete with their global peers. But the method is flawed. Standardization does not inspire.
Two years shy of the deadline, the Obama Administration has given states an out, but not before setting its own benchmarks. To be exempted, states must agree to college- and career-ready standards, set new achievement standards and create new teacher evaluation systems.
The waivers signal a shift in the right direction. But do the new terms simply trade one yardstick for another?
Out of 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 17th in science and 25th in math. New ideas are needed. Simply establishing new standardized tests won’t solve the problem. In order to learn and love a subject, students must be engaged. The problem isn’t in the test, it’s in the teaching. The system of read-and-repeat doesn’t work. The Obama Administration has given schools the opportunity to break free from box-ticking. The challenge for schools is to adopt new ways of teaching that rates application over repetition.
In Chicago - where Dyson’s U.S. headquarters is based - education has been the focus of much debate. The school system recently agreed to lengthen what was the shortest school day in the country. The challenge now is how students should spend their newly found minutes. Some suggested adding ten minutes of instruction time to core subjects. Others proposed lengthening recess.
Undeniably, play time is an important part of childhood. But teachers must take the opportunity to bring this play and excitement into the classroom. Teach core subjects like science and math through applied learning and experimentation.
I’ve yet to meet a child who is stimulated by a test. But get them to build a balloon rocket or hoop glider? That's a sure way to teach students about thrust, drag and other physics principles.
In the UK, we’ve seen improvement in the level of science and engineering education, both through a dedicated Design & Technology curriculum and supplemental engineering activities like those run by my foundation. Over 600,000 students in the UK have used the foundation’s resources to work on science and math in practical, engaging ways. And now in Chicago, we are hoping to do the same.
Through practical experiments and creative problem solving, students get excited about science and engineering - subjects that have gained a reputation for being too difficult, or worse, uncool.
That same stigma discourages many students from pursuing science and engineering as a career. Reading about torque and velocity from a book doesn’t necessarily compel students to pick up a protractor. But it’s these principles that are applied in automobile and aerospace engineering - fast-paced, fun and still uncharted fields.
Job-readiness programs are ways to equip students with the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow. Some states have proposed creative solutions to funding these programs. In Minnesota, the governor has urged businesses to “adopt a school.” It’s a mutually beneficial plan. Students receive the resources and practical skills they need to prepare them for university or the work force, and businesses help develop future talent.
Free from the shackles of standardization, schools can explore new and better ways of teaching. But do teachers have the training to navigate this new educational terrain?
As with the way students learn, the Obama Administration has proposed an overhaul to how teachers teach. It has pledged $5 billion in competitive grants to encourage states to rethink and rebuild the teaching profession - positive changes like the end of teacher tenure, better pay and better recruitment for bright new teaching talent.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said about teaching, “No other profession carries a greater burden for securing our economic future.” I would argue engineers carry a greater burden, but without the best teachers, we won’t have those either.
The shift away from the confines No Child Left Behind is the right one - but this is an opportunity for U.S. education not to just to catch-up but to lead. The challenge will be to avoid judging success on statistics instead of on the bright people education produces. We must move from learning by rote to learning by doing; we must encourage businesses to support job training programs and incentivize states to have the best teachers - not necessarily the longest tenure.
These aren’t radical ideas. But they are essential to changing the face of education.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of James Dyson.