Rupert Murdoch — Keynote Address Foundation for Excellence in Education Summit

San Francisco, California – October 14, 2011 – Thank you, Jeb.

Good morning. I’m glad to see so many people up so early.

I want to start by thanking my good friends from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

You begin with the conviction that every child can learn. You set high standards. And your good work is bringing us closer to the day we all want – when every schoolhouse door is a gateway to the American Dream.

I’m speaking today as a businessman. So let me come right to the point. We need to tear down an education system designed for the 19th century – and replace it with one suited for the 21st. And we need to approach the education industry the way my friend Steve Jobs approached every industry.

Most of you know that Steve introduced the Mac with an ad that has since become a legend. Those of you who were watching the 1984 Super Bowl will remember it.

It ran only once.

It ran for only one minute.

It shows a female athlete who is being chased by the police of some totalitarian regime.

At the climax, the woman rushes up to a large screen where Big Brother is giving a speech. Just as he announces, “we shall prevail” she hurls her hammer through the screen.

With that, Big Brother’s whole world comes crashing down.

If you ask me what we need to do in education, I would point you to that ad.

Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, says we have to stop dummying down standards and stop lying to our children and their families. That’s putting it politely.

  • At the top end, our public schools are producing fewer and fewer graduates who have the skills necessary for the world’s best jobs.

  • At the bottom end, each year more than a million Americans – that’s 7,000 every school day – drop out of high school. This is a human tragedy for these individuals, in terms of how it all but guarantees them a life of poverty. And it is a national tragedy for America, in terms of the huge social costs this is imposing on our future.

  • And in the middle, too many American children float from grade to grade in schools that never challenge them. These are kids who could soar but are instead held to the ground because of a mediocre education.

We are all here today because we recognize all this is unjust … unsustainable … and un-American.

It is a crime against our children.

And it is especially galling because we have the technology to change it.

Now the front pages of the New York Times complain that technology’s promise has not yet been realized in terms of student performance.

My answer to them is this: Of course not.

Think of it this way. If we attached computers to leeches, medicine wouldn’t be any better than it was in the 19th century, when doctors used them to bleed patients.

The same goes for education. You don’t get change by plugging in computers to schools designed for the industrial age. You get it by deploying technology that re-writes the rules of the game by centering learning around the learner.

So this morning I’d like to talk about three broad issues. My first two parts have to do with challenges – the crisis of imagination, and the crisis of rising costs. In my last part, I offer the good news: With common standards and a competitive market, we can deliver a first-class education to any child, from any background, in any classroom in America. This is not a dream. It’s a fact.

Let me start with imagination.

Earlier I mentioned Steve Jobs. I came to know Steve over the last two years, when we worked together to create the first totally digital newspaper – The Daily – which we launched on the iPad earlier this year.

Our children are growing up in Steve Jobs’ world. They are eager to learn, and quick to embrace new technology. Outside the classroom they take all this for granted – in what they read, in how they listen to music, in how they shop. Outside the classroom, they take it for granted that people will compete to meet their individual needs and expectations.

The minute they step back into their classrooms, it’s a different story. It’s like going back in time.

In the essentials, most American classrooms haven’t changed much since the days of Grover Cleveland. You have a teacher, a piece of chalk, a blackboard – and a roomful of kids. If they are lucky, today you might see a whiteboard off to the side – or some computers in the library.

Ask teachers how that’s working out. Ask them about dealing with 30 different kids with different needs and different ways of learning.

For kids, this top-down, one-size-fits-all approach frustrates the ones who could do more advanced work. And it leaves further and further behind those who need extra help to keep up.

Teachers are likewise stunted. Some excel at lecturing. Some are better at giving personal attention. With the right structure, they would work together like a football team. With the present structure, they are all treated like interchangeable cogs.

Steve Jobs wouldn’t have accepted this. And he didn’t.

Shortly after he died, the mom of a three year old posted a note about how his iPad had allowed her autistic son – who does not talk – to find his voice. In a similar way, a North Carolina school district had only 26% of its students go on to college – until they adopted programs for the Mac. Now a majority go on to college.

The point I’m making isn’t about Apple. It’s about our complacency and our colossal failure of imagination.

The education industry bears a good part of the blame for this sad state of affairs. It continues to sell its tired wares into a failing status quo. It settles for mediocre charter schools. And its answer is simply throwing more money at the problem.

I have a different view. I believe we need to take what is working so well outside the classroom and use it to shake up the classroom – to make mathematics sticky … to micro-target the 8th grade girls who might want to be physicists … and to personalize reading for each child.

Put it this way. If you were designing an American classroom to give our children the skills they need for the best jobs of the 21st century, what would it look like? A typical public school? Or one of Steve Jobs’ Apple stores?

That leads to the second challenge: the unsustainable cost of doing nothing.

On its own, the performance of our public school system is disgraceful. Worse, we’re paying more and more for it – and getting less and less in return.

In April 1983, the Department of Education released a report called “A Nation at Risk.” Here’s how it described the problem back then:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves …

In the three decades since those words were written, we have doubled our per pupil spending in real terms. Doubled!

But our achievement scores have been flat. That’s a whole generation – lost and written-off.

As I speak, two-thirds of our eight graders are scoring below proficient in math and reading.

The crisis is even more acute for our minority students. Today the average African-American or Latino 9-year-old is three grades behind in these subjects. We all know that a child who is not reading at grade level by that age will probably never catch up.

Look behind these grim statistics, and you will find the human toll of our complacency: lost opportunity, crushed dreams, and lives condemned to the margins of American prosperity.

That’s where technology comes in. The iPod compelled the music industry to accommodate its customers.

With the right technology, we can do the same for education.

For example, say I was trying to teach a 10-year-old about Bernoulli’s principle. According to this principle, when speed is high, pressure is low. Sounds pretty dry and abstract.

But what if I could bring this lesson alive by linking it to the football star Roberto Carlos – by showing students a video clip that illustrates how his famous curved shot is an example of Bernoulli’s principle in action. And then suppose I followed up with an engineer from Boeing – who explained to these students why this same principle is critical in aviation, and introduced an app that could help them master the concept through playing a game.

Is there any doubt that most students would learn more about this principle from this kind of lesson than from reading almost any chapter in their textbooks?

Couple these demonstrations with assessment tools that provide teachers with instant feedback that demonstrate how well their students had mastered the material. Is there any question that the results would be far superior to what we do now: wait for the teacher to give a test, grade it, and return it to the student?

Better doesn’t have to be more expensive either. Just as the latest MacBook Air delivers far more capability at a far lower price to far more people than the Mac computers of the 1980s and 1990s, education technology is already doing the same.

For example, Georgia state legislators now spend $40 million a year on textbooks. They are considering iPads to save money and boost performance. Unlike a textbook – which is outdated the moment it is printed – digital texts can be updated. Today 600 school districts around the country are experimenting with iPads, and we’ll know a lot more when the results are in.

Textbooks aren’t the only area for savings. Rocketship charter schools in San Jose use a model that combines traditional classroom learning with individualized instruction through online technology called DreamBox Learning. So far the program has brought higher performance with lower costs – freeing up the school to pay teachers more, hire tutors, and so on.

Let’s be clear: Technology is never going to replace teachers.

What technology can do is give teachers closer, more human and more rewarding interactions with their students.

At the same time, technology can give children lesson plans tailored to their pace and needs.

And it can give school districts a way to improve performance in the classroom while saving their taxpayers money.

So we come to my last point. Everything I have spoken about is possible in the here and now. But the investments the private sector needs to make simply will not happen without some agreement about what we expect our students to learn.

In the past, I have said that the standards for America’s public schools are lower than our standards for “American Idol.” Since I spoke those words, I have had some backup from the A-C-T, an independent education organization that handles college testing. Recently this organization reported that three-quarters of American students who graduate from high school are not ready to do college work.

Three quarters! And these are the kids who are going to college.

This is not the foundation for a 21st century economy. This is not the kind of achievement-oriented system that will give our children the education they need to compete in today’s world. In truth, it’s the kind of number you would expect from a Third World country.

Digital gives us the means to transform the dismal status quo – and to do it quickly.

But we will not get far until we have a clear answer to a basic question: What is the core body of knowledge our children need to know to compete with their peers across the world, and maintain our lead as a free nation?

I don’t pretend to be an expert on academic standards. But as a business leader, I do know something about how common standards unlock investment and unleash innovation.

For example, once we established standards for mp3 and WiFi and the internet, innovators had every incentive to invest their brains and capital in building the very best products compatible with that standard.

With those standards in place, investors were willing to take bigger risks because there were bigger rewards. These rewards did not stop at America’s borders, either. All around the world, talented people were working on solving the same problems – and companies tapped into this talent.

We are now seeing the same thing happening in education. Over the last few years, leaders and educators in more than 40 states have come together to reach agreement on what their students should know and be able to do in math and English – and by what grades.

One reason these state leaders have come together is that that they have taken a look around the world. They know that the student in, say, San Francisco, is not just competing against his classmate – or even the kid from St. Louis. He’s competing with his peers in Shanghai, Lima, and Prague.

Now, it’s true that setting standards will help News Corporation as we try to figure out what programs our schools need. I must note, however, that common standards will give every one of my competitors the exact same advantage. And that’s how it should be in a free and competitive market.

Let me conclude with a word about where we go from here. The way I see it, this is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue.

It’s an achievement issue.

I see that everywhere I go in the world.

In South Korea, I have seen how a competitive education market turns teachers into national celebrities – with some commanding salaries we reserve for rock stars and football players.

In Sweden, I have seen how an innovative Knowledge School, which gives kids a knowledge portal that allow them to use their curiosity to take them places they’ve never been.

In China, I meet many students that somehow have a better chance for a decent education than a child growing up in our nation’s capital.

You can see that same dynamic right here in this room.

Joel Klein is a Democrat who served in the Clinton administration and as chancellor for New York City’s public schools.

Jeb Bush is the former governor of Florida, from a prominent Republican family. If you talk to them about education, you will find that they sound remarkably similar.

That’s because both men are for setting high standards, expanding the choices open to parents, and ensuring greater accountability. During Jeb’s time as governor, Florida registered dramatic improvement on the national achievement tests – especially among minority students. During Joel’s time as chancellor, New York City showed big improvement in both its national test scores and its high school graduation rates.

They are here today because they know that whatever their success, we are still far from where we should be.

Steve Jobs was like that too. He was a Silicon Valley liberal who believed that monopolies like our public school system do not work – and therefore that parents deserved school vouchers for their children. He was a man who spent his life on technology, yet knew that the teacher was more important than the computer.

He once explained our public school system this way:

“I remember seeing a bumper sticker when the telephone company was all one. I remember seeing a bumper sticker with the Bell Logo on it and it said ‘We don’t care. We don’t have to.’ And that’s what a monopoly is. That’s what IBM was in their day. And that’s certainly what the public school system is. They don’t have to care.”

Well, we have to care. In this new century, good is not good enough. Our children are our destiny. We have wasted enough time. At stake now is the defining promise of the American Dream: the promise of upward mobility for each new generation.

Put simply we must approach education the way Steve Jobs approached every industry he touched. To be willing to blow up what doesn’t work or gets in the way. And to make our bet that if we can engage a child’s imagination, there’s no limit to what he or she can learn.