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A Trib exclusive: Jeb Bush says we must embrace the 21st century and toss our 19th-century education model

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By Jeb Bush
Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

I started a recent day by reading The Wall Street Journal and checked on the latest chatter over Twitter. Then I downloaded an email with the latest pictures of my granddaughter, watched a video of LeBron James dunking on the 76ers and started a UC Berkeley course in quantum mechanics — all from my iPad. OK, not really on that last one but the option was there.

Smart technology has put the world at our fingertips. It has revolutionized the way we communicate, the way we find information and the way we work. It increases productivity by orders of magnitude. It provides unlimited, on-demand access to entertainment, news and research resources. It challenges old business models while simultaneously opening up new ones.

The same economic, technological and demographic forces that are transforming the way people live and work are also creating new pressures for schools to adapt. We expect more from our schools today in terms of preparing all students to be college and career ready. We can meet these challenges but only if we harness the opportunities afforded to us by technology to change the way we provide instruction. Today's education system faces irrelevance unless we bridge the gap between how students learn with what is expected of them in the world they are entering.

We can't use a 19th-century education model to teach 21st-century children. It is evident that a one-size-fits-all education system doesn't fit today's generation of students. Students learn at individual paces. They want to be challenged. They want to be engaged. And they want an experience personalized just for them.

A student who struggles to read can have access to a personalized curriculum that targets his or her weaknesses while working with a teacher who is specialized in the subject area and can focus one-on-one on that child's needs.

Students who can finish geometry in less than five months shouldn't have to sit in a classroom for twice that long. And students who need more time to master a lesson shouldn't be left behind because the classroom has to stay on schedule.

We obviously have the technology tools and resources to deal with these issues. The challenge is using these technologies to reimagine what learning can look like versus just layering more computers on top of an outdated model. Some politicians shield K-12 education from the market forces that have forced every other industry to adapt to survive. Outdated laws protect the status quo rather than create room to try innovations.

As part of this effort, Digital Learning Now! will soon release a report card that grades each state on progress toward establishing an education system that makes personalized learning a reality for all students. Grades are based on 10 measures, including quality choices and content and student access. As a nation, we are not where we need to be.

State leaders need to be bold in advancing policies that make more online courses available to students. They should upgrade their credit policies so students can earn credit whenever they master the material instead of according to how long they spent in a class. Schools need flexibility from stifling mandates and outdated regulation that get in the way of next-generation models. And we need to make sure that there is an unwavering focus on quality as measured by student outcomes. If a course provider or virtual school isn't performing, then it should be shut down.

Many of us watched the Academy Award-winning film “Lincoln.” In 1862, one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln stood before Congress and issued this reflective challenge: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

So, too, must we rise with the occasion, move past the dogmas of our past and act anew to help every child reach his or her own full potential. Ensuring every child is successful will ensure we have thriving communities, a vibrant society and a growing economy.

Jeb Bush is the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Digital Learning Now! He served as the Republican governor of Florida from 1999-2007.

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