February 8, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Changing the World, One Textbook at a Time

Print More

My decision to attend Cornell University for graduate studies was one of the best decisions that I ever made. Cornell’s graduate schools provide an education of the highest quality. This education allows Cornell graduates to work successfully in world-class organizations in the private, public and non-profit sectors. My husband (JGSM ’07) and my professional careers serve as additional proof of this fact. However, I wanted to emphasize specifically the unique value of a dual graduate program, in particular the dual MBA/MILR degree program at Cornell University that I completed in 2009. This program equipped me with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the fields of business and human capital. It has also allowed me to approach the challenges of improving education quality for students and improving human capital in general in a multidisciplinary way.

For many years, improving the quality of education, including the quality of K-12 education, has been at the forefront of extensive academic, social and political efforts with few sustainable and scalable breakthroughs that could be applied to most of the world’s education systems. Yet I believe that such a breakthrough can be achieved by applying a business mindset and a market-based approach, and using a qualitative model.

The idea is to select through competition the best available teaching and study materials (as well as teaching methodologies based on such materials) and make them accessible to the entire student population in an economically responsible and feasible way. Of course, it is probably not possible to tackle all subjects in all grades all at once. I propose for the initial focus to be on supporting the development of knowledge and skills of students of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related subjects, as it is these fields that are key to ensuring — in both developed and developing countries — a relevant and skilled workforce. To illustrate the proposed approach, let’s take the example of mathematics, a subject that most people believe all students should learn and that is an integral part of STEM education.

Children often start learning mathematics in elementary school. In different countries, schools use a variety of teaching and study materials to teach math. The most common study material is a mathematics textbook. Around the world, and even within a country, mathematics textbooks differ in quality. The quality of teachers who teach mathematics (and who use these textbooks and other study materials) can also vary, contributing to inconsistent quality of instruction.

To address these issues, I suggest that an authoritative organization, or group of such organizations from both academia and industry, select the appropriate study material (for example, a mathematics textbook) that is considered to be the best (or one of the best) in the field for a particular subject. If such a textbook does not exist, it should be developed. In addition to identifying or creating such a textbook, a teacher guide should be developed to ensure that the material in this textbook is taught in the most proper and efficient way, thus maximizing the textbook’s benefit benefit. A teacher guide can be developed on the basis of the textbook and can include guidance for teachers on monitoring and evaluating student progress on the material taught in the textbook. To ensure that teachers are proficient in teaching based on this textbook and the teacher guide, a certification examination can be developed (or commissioned) by the company or organization that selected or developed the textbook and the teacher guide.

Once the textbook is identified or developed, the teacher guide is created and a certification examination for teachers is put in place, the local authorities responsible for making education decisions can start using these resources. These authorities can also require teachers who are going to use this textbook to receive the appropriate training and receive a certificate of their proficiency in teaching based on the textbook. In their turn, teachers will have to successfully pass the certification exam in order to secure a position at a school that requires teaching based on such a textbook. This exam can be developed to be administered in paper format, online or through some other electronic device (depending on the availability of resources in the particular school district, county, etc.)

The objective of the described approach is to facilitate a substantial improvement in the education process. Specifically, the suggested approach will:

  • Make available to all students regardless of their location in the world, socioeconomic status and the like, the best textbooks (or other study aides) and high quality content delivery
  • Provide relevant training opportunities to teachers, ensuring that they can obtain employment in various schools that use the same textbooks.

In fact, it could be possible for others, and not only for teachers who have completed teacher training, to teach students on the basis of such textbooks. For example, students in a university studying mathematics or retired computer industry professionals could, upon passing the certification examination, also teach at a school using the described textbook, thereby not only increasing the pool of qualified individuals who can teach, say, the mathematics course, but also incentivizing teachers to continuously improve their teaching skills.

Of course, there may be different competing high quality study materials for a particular subject (for example, mathematics) in a particular grade. In these cases, materials can co-exist and, most likely, the market will determine which materials are in fact “the best.”

The company that would provide the textbooks, teacher guides and assessment mechanisms could develop a profitable business by selling their products and services to schools, school districts, ministries of education, etc. Teachers could be required to pay a fee for taking part in training and certification opportunities.

The proposed approach is founded on the premise that using market forces and the latest developments in STEM will ensure that the most relevant learning material, and teacher guidance based on that material, is available to all students. Key industry and academic institutions can together to leverage their scale, scope and access to information to develop (or select) the best educational materials and provide teacher training and teacher certification. It is likely that the partnering companies contributing to this project will generate substantial value as a result of this activity, both from a financial and social perspective.

The described approach uses the successful experiences of various industries and applies the key concepts to education. Examples include setting standards in the communications and computer industry, where professionals have to prepare for and pass certification tests that allow them to work in certain capacities using specific hardware and software products (e.g., network solutions, databases, etc.), irrespective of the formal schooling and training that these professionals had initially received or where they happen to live.

One can envision a number of companies organized as a result of collaboration between major academic and industry institutions, whether they are in the computer technology, pharmaceutical, nuclear or any other STEM field. Education institutions already have access to educational materials and expertise in learning standards and curricula for students of different ages, grades and subjects. Leading corporations employ experienced professionals as well as financial and technological resources to ensure the launch and sustainability of this project. Importantly, the name recognition and the reputation for quality and innovation of the academic and industry partners will help to promote the newly developed education project and its products and services — this is important for a number of reasons, one of them being that it will help to overcome the bureaucracy that exists in many places in the world, something that often inhibits students’ access to the most high quality educational resources. The market will allow decision makers to make decisions based on the intrinsic value of the education resources rather than on the ideological, political and other non-education preferences and criteria. The power of the market will be used to ensure that the best interests of students are met.


Julia Liberman graduated from Cornell in 2009 with a dual MBA/MILR degree.