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'Ideas': A New Series From NPR Ed

"The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other."

James Garfield, the United States' 20th president, supposedly said this about one of his former professors, a legendary educator and the president of Williams College from 1836 to 1872. It captures what feels like a ground truth in education: It's impossible to improve on the enduring value of a personal, one-on-one relationship between a student and a great teacher.

Yet, we live in a moment when that ideal too often feels unrealistic, even unobtainable. In the U.S., stubborn, systemic inequality has left too many schools underfunded and understaffed — their teachers too busy to share a log with one student for more than a moment here and there. And it has left a higher ed system where the richest low-achievers go to college at higher rates than the top-scoring poor kids.

And sheer access isn't the only challenge. People are asking tough questions about the relevance of what's being taught. If robots take over more and more jobs, what is it that humans can do better? What are the 21st century skills that will future-proof our kids? Coding? Empathy? Cantonese? Grit?

And then there's the cost of it all. The U.S. spends more on education, per capita, than the average for rich countries, but gets mediocre results. And students and families are paying a high price, too. With student loan debt now topping $1.3 trillion, many are clamoring for change. Is it really going to cost $200,000 to attend a public university by the time today's kindergartners graduate high school? When is the product not worth the price?

Access. Relevance. Cost. Three big, fundamental reasons that people are looking to radically change education. Or, at least, polish the logs we want America's kids sitting on.

Over the coming year, we'll try here at NPR Ed to apply some big-picture thinking to the many shiny stories of educational innovation that cross our desks on a regular basis. In all cases, we'll ask these unifying questions:

-- Can innovation help alleviate some of that stubborn inequality in the U.S. education system? Or is it bound to broaden the digital divide?

-- What is the relationship between digital technologies and high-quality teaching and learning?

-- Where are the campuses, classrooms, labs, fields, parks and other settings around the world today that look most like the "classrooms of the future"?

-- What different interests do the various players bring to bear? Philanthropists? Researchers? Investors? Companies? Governments? Teachers? Students?

-- Who is currently empowered to transform education? Is there a way to get more diverse voices into the process?

-- Why do promising innovations so often fail? And, if "fail fast" is part of the process, how do we shield vulnerable students from that creative destruction?

-- Do innovations need to work on a grand scale in order to be transformative? Or is it more about testing out many small ideas?

-- What will education look like in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

We'll need our audience's help. What learning innovations have you seen come on board in the last few years that really seem to be making a difference in your life or the life of a student you know? And add your own questions in the comments.

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