Think back to your first classroom. The desks were lined up in rows (or perhaps clustered, if your school was especially progressive), and a teacher holding a piece of dusty chalk stood at a blackboard, talking through a lesson and hoping for the best. Sound familiar? That’s what my high school in Hamilton, New Zealand looked like in the 1980s. It’s what my parents’ school looked like in the (even) less-developed 1950s, and my grandparents’ schools in the rural 1920s. As you can see from the painting at left, it’s what fourteenth-century schools looked like in Bologna, Italy. And that’s pretty much how my children still learn, in their urban Washington, D.C., schools in 2013.

The familiarity of this education model, static not just for generations but for centuries, may bring comfort to some, but leaves many more questioning why so little has changed. With all this sophisticated technology that’s spurred paradigm shifts large and small, there’s almost zero progress in the practice of what surely we can agree is the most important thing we do as a society: develop the minds and characters of our youngest citizens.

But if you pay attention, inspired educators, entrepreneurs, technologists, and others are hard at work. Their findings are beginning to alter how students learn as well as where that learning takes place. Change hasn’t yet trickled down to most of our childrens’ classrooms, but it’s on the way.

Change hasn’t yet trickled down to most of our childrens’ classrooms, but it’s on the way.

A PPPiece of the puzzle

Because technology has placed us at the cusp of such radical shifts in learning, the finance and administration of education delivery systems seem a little like bit players in an epic drama. But the sweep of history has stirred change here as well. Until recently, it was fairly widely believed that governments alone could and should ensure education for all, and could do so only if that education was wholly publicly delivered, owned, and financed. Most also felt that any private sector involvement in education must be regarded with suspicion lest it fleece the government, unsuspecting children, and their families. These fairly rigid views have relaxed in the past decade or so, and more and more countries are considering and implementing public-private partnerships (PPPs) for education—potentially a hugely beneficial balancing act where each side offers what it does best.

These partnerships got their start as education private finance initiatives (PFI) in the United Kingdom—bundling the finance, construction, and facilities maintenance for the private sector—between about 2000 and 2010. This has grown strong globally, especially since 2005, and even continued to grow during the 2009 to 2010 global financial crisis, finally tapering off in 2011. But PFIs are often criticized as being as boring and basic as the ABCs. (In this issue John Kjorstad invokes Pink Floyd’s dejected student in The Wall to make a similar point much more vividly.) After all, this type of PPP tackles “only” the school infrastructure, leaving out the question of uninspired (or even absent) teachers and unchallenged students.

School infrastructure, however, has an impact on learning, especially in developing countries where shoddy infrastructure, poorly maintained, negatively affects students’ ability to learn. PFI-style, infrastructure-only PPPs relieve school management of the daily headaches of broken ceiling fans, overflowing toilets, or crumbling bricks. This lets teachers to focus on instruction and allows students to learn in more comfortable environments, while higher-level administrators can finally turn their limited attention to strategy and policy.

While PFIs continue to fill a need in many areas, and can be a politically pragmatic and palatable “starter” PPP, education partnerships are evolving into more comprehensive PPPs that take on the core problems in education: the quality of teachers, the management of teaching, and the teaching itself.

The next level

While PFIs continue to fill a need in many areas, and can be a politically pragmatic and palatable “starter” PPP, education partnerships are evolving into more comprehensive PPPs that take on the core problems in education: the quality of teachers, the management of teaching, and the teaching itself. Appropriately incentivizing the private sector to deliver education can introduce innovation, rigor, and efficiencies that can be very difficult to do in traditional public school environments with entrenched mindsets, bureaucracies, and policies.

Contributors to this issue report from the front lines of these experiments, which include charter schools and their offshoots, voucher programs, incentives for teachers, and new models in Brazil, India, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

Each of these projects and partnerships, how-ever small, paves the way for more learning, and facilitates expanded access to education as technology reaches into every pocket of the globe. The end result is a future in which classrooms, at long last, no longer resemble fourteenth-century paintings.