Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2023 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to answer this question: “How can we harness the power but mitigate the risks of artificial intelligence in our schools?” Learn more.
Barrels of digital ink are being spilled fretting over the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) tools to disrupt learning in K–12 schools. Educators, policymakers, and parents are worried about the possibility that tools like ChatGPT will help students pass off computer-generated work as their own. While these are valid concerns, they miss the big picture: The greatest potential for AI to disrupt K–12 education lies not in how students learn, but in how educational institutions organize and operate.
AI tools will almost certainly have some positive impact on how students learn. General-use tools like ChatGPT and more K–12 specific aids like Khanmigo will change how students approach their schoolwork by helping them generate ideas and receive feedback faster than anything short of one-on-one support from a teacher or tutor. AI capabilities will enhance platforms connecting students, parents, and teachers. This is all exciting, and leaders should encourage thoughtful and safe use of AI tools in the same way they do for any other technology. But we ought to temper our expectations for these tools to drive transformative change in K–12 classrooms.
That’s because the new class of tools won’t fundamentally change how kids learn. It won’t erase the Matthew Effect—the concept that learning new information is easier when you have a higher level of background knowledge. As Robert Pondiscio noted last winter, “it takes knowledge to communicate knowledge—or even to have the discernment to judge whether an AI-generated piece of text makes sense or sufficiently responds to a prompt.” The real danger of AI in classrooms will be if it distracts from ongoing and increasingly successful efforts to provide students—particularly those in traditionally underserved communities—with access to solid, knowledge-building curricula.
This means leaders and policymakers should prioritize finding opportunities for AI-driven innovations to transform K–12 education at the organizational level. The challenges facing school systems in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic are complex and interrelated: substantial learning loss, declining enrollment in public schools, a looming fiscal cliff, and staff shortages. AI can help fuel solutions to these challenges within and beyond the traditional public school system in three ways:
- AI can help make teaching a more attractive and sustainable career. AI won’t be able to raise teacher pay or directly address talent pipeline issues. But it can help change the day-to-day experiences of teachers by freeing up their time in important ways. While we know high-quality curricula and instructional materials can make a meaningful difference in student learning, too many teachers are expected to create them (or scour for them on Google and Pinterest) on their own. AI tools can help teachers develop high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to a well-structured curriculum, freeing up their time to focus on delivering lessons effectively and providing more individualized support to students. AI can also reduce the time teachers spend on administrative tasks such as data entry or other paperwork, something a plurality of teachers support. In short, AI can help create more space for educators to do what they do best: serve students.
- AI can fuel the ideas of more education entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs said that the personal computer was like a “bicycle for the mind,” but in the hands of education entrepreneurs, AI is more like an airplane, allowing them to do more and higher-quality work than was previously possible. Studies show that good management matters, including in schools—and AI tools are poised to make high-quality management advice more accessible to the masses. In a recent study, researchers at Harvard Business School showed that access to GPT-4 helped consultants at Boston Consulting Group produce higher-quality work and also leveled the playing field between lower and higher performers. If education entrepreneurs can leverage AI tools in a similar way, many more people with a passion to educate children will be able to generate strategic plans, pressure-test their curricular and pedagogical ideas, and build other key infrastructure needed to move from an idea to a more fully-formed organizational concept.
- AI can lower the barriers to developing and implementing innovative models inside and out outside of the traditional public school system. The current “bundle” of schooling—sometimes referred to as the “grammar of schooling”—provides a familiar suite of services and experiences to children and families that is straining to adapt to their changing and increasingly complex needs. There’s a growing demand for a new learner-centered grammar of schooling—one that includes more integration of out-of-school educational options. But regulatory barriers constrain the quantity, quality, and accessibility of educational options beyond traditional public schools. For example, charter school regulations and application processes create complexity that reduces both the number and diversity of charter school operators. AI tools could help potential founders navigate what ends up being a daunting amount of paperwork. Learning pods and microschools face their own regulatory barriers related to zoning, fire codes, food service, and more. AI could help current and potential operators function more effectively within the limits of these complex rules. In each of these instances, AI tools can help leaders better navigate the regulatory hurdles that frequently stand in the way of serving children.
Realizing AI’s potential in all these areas will require vision, collaboration, and resilience from leaders and policymakers. Policies and incentives need to account for different ways of operating, even if it means accepting some near-term misses that occur when rolling out new AI-powered initiatives. Accountability and measurement systems need to consider student success that includes but goes beyond standard assessments of core subjects as more student learning shifts beyond the four walls of the schoolhouse. And stakeholders across the K–12 system need to approach AI not as a fad, but as a transformative technology that requires coherent and sustaining systems.
Perhaps most importantly, leaders and educators need to resist the temptation to become overly focused on—or even panicked about—how AI might change teaching and learning. The dawn of ubiquitous AI should serve as a reminder that children still need to develop a deep foundation of knowledge to use these tools well, and that the best use of AI in traditional schools is to free up the time of educators to do more work directly with students. Outside of schools, AI can help cultivate the “weirder” ecosystem of educational options needed for a system of education that empowers families to access the educational opportunities their children need to thrive. When used thoughtfully, AI tools have the potential to move us closer to an education system that provides a more diverse range of experiences to meet the unique needs of every student.