US education can use a ton of rethinking

Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie last week announced the launch of their first serious philanthropic endeavor. Called The Bezos Day One Fund, the organization will start with a $2 billion commitment and will focus on two areas: homelessness and early-childhood education.

In his announcement, the Amazon chief explained that homelessness will be tackled by “funding existing nonprofits that help homeless families” while the fund will be much more hands-on in developing its approach to education. The plan is to create “a network of new, nonprofit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

But as always, the devil will be in the details.

Bezos isn’t the first billionaire to wade into the education system. Mark Zuckerberg famously poured $100 million into the Newark school system that ably mimicked pouring turned wine down a kitchen drain. Bezos’ focus on early education, however, will give him an easier path than trying to remake an already existing, and failing, system.

On the other hand, Bezos is setting expectations high by using his business success as a yardstick.

“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession,” he writes. “The child will be the customer.”

Tech-bro-sounding buzzwords are usually a red flag. So it’s worth asking up front: What would a school that treated the kid as a customer really look like?

The Bezos schools will be “Montessori-inspired” — a famously “unstructured” method of teaching. But having a “method of teaching” at all for 4-year-olds might be foolhardy anyway.

Alina Adams, author of “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten,” told me that “when it comes to choosing a preschool, parents are overwhelmed. They not only have to wade through all the buzzwords — Montessori, Reggio, child-centered, play-based, progressive, traditional, teacher-directed, early literacy, number recognition, etc. — they have to figure out what the right educational setting might be for a child who is barely out of diapers.”

Fact is, much of “early-childhood education” is really about having somewhere engaging for the child to go while the parents work. The side benefits of socialization or better cognitive development can happen elsewhere.

A study of the Head Start program, “the large federally funded pre-kindergarten initiative that started in the 1960s,” found that one of the benefits of the program was “higher adult earnings and greater educational attainment” for mothers.

It’s not just about the actual education happening at early-education centers. Some combination of daycare and schooling is really what’s needed. A school with long, flexible hours would be a real benefit to low-income families.

Another way the Bezos schools could be child-focused is to allow a lot of outdoor free play. A 2011 article in The Atlantic on the importance of free play in fending off depression and anxiety quotes former Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray noting, “Since about 1955 . . . children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities.”

That decline has, according to Gray, led to higher instances of depression and anxiety as kids never learn to regulate their emotions away from the intervention of adults.

More than anything else, Bezos’ schools can be a success if they are truly allowed to innovate and cater to the particular student bodies each will have. Adams agrees: “If Bezos can figure out a way to offer parents a customized experience that changes as their child (and the world) changes, he might be able to carve out a space for himself in the current one-size-fits-all, what works for this child will also [work] for that one, take it and be grateful for what we’re giving you environment.”

Bezos can avoid the pitfalls of previous dilettantes if he brings the nimbleness of Amazon to the education process and doesn’t rely too heavily on what other schools have done. That is, if the innovator is truly up to the challenge of innovating in America’s staid education landscape.

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