What’s your single best idea for reforming K-12 education?

That’s the question that Forbes posed to many of us recently, and as I thought about how to answer it, my first thought was this: there is a danger in the question itself, as it implies unintentionally that, to some degree, there is a silver bullet solution to tackle the enormous challenges all of us face in educating students, all of whom have a range of different learning needs at different times and come from a range of different circumstances. And as we’ve been reminded over and over again by so many people—there is no silver bullet to education reform.

But that first visceral response does both suggest one of the critical things holding the nation’s K-12 education system back, as well as a reform that will push it forward.

The central challenge we face in education is, as Steve Denning, my fellow Forbes contributor who wrote on this topic recently, said the basic factory model of education.

As we write in Disrupting Class, this factory model has created a series of interdependencies throughout the system that has basically created a one-size-fits-all monolithic model of education that mandates standardization in the way we teach and test (it’s just too expensive to customize in an interdependent system), which clashes with the fundamental reality that students have different learning needs at different times.

To break this, we need to create a student-centric system that can affordably customize for each student’s different learning needs, goals, and circumstances.

So what’s my single best idea for reforming K-12 education?

We need to move away from this system dominated and characterized by the measure of time and other inputs—in which we hold time as a constant for everyone and learning is variable—to a competency-based learning system powered by digital learning in which time becomes the variable and student learning the constant and the system is based on outcomes.

The notion of moving to a competency-based learning system isn’t necessarily new, but moving to such a system that builds and rewards success for students and teachers every single day is critical.

And powering it with digital learning to unleash the power of mass customization to meet different student needs and provide all students anywhere with the opportunities to have a high quality learning experience is absolutely critical to get there. This doesn’t mean all learning will be online in schools by any means, but it does mean that digital learning will be the platform to help teachers customize the learning experience for each child at a minimum. Digital Learning Now provides a policy framework for moving us there—and I’d also recommend the recent policy brief I coauthored, “From Inputs to Outputs to Outcomes.”

And now I’d like to hear from you. My single best idea for reforming K-12 education is to transform the system into a competency-based system powered by digital learning. What’s yours?

This blog was first posted at Forbes.com.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.