Tesla and School Innovation

The Tesla electric car has been a startling newcomer to the automotive industry shocking established U.S. companies such as General Motors and Ford as well as European and Japanese carmakers. Pricey as it is, the car has been a hit with American consumers. It has altered car-buying choices for those who can afford an all-electric vehicle. And it has made a lot of money for those who own Tesla stock.

While electric automobiles have been around in the U.S. since the late-19th century, Tesla Inc. has mass produced different models to capture those consumers who have the discretionary money in their bank (or willing to take out loans) to buy a car that never uses gas. With growing evidence that climate change has created extreme weather events, buying an upscale electric-powered car appeals to those Americans who want to reduce their fossil fuel footprint. And it is classy-looking as well.

Here is Wikipedia‘s description of Tesla, Inc. history since the early 2000s:

Tesla was incorporated in July 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning as Tesla Motors. The company’s name is a tribute to inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. In February 2004, via a $6.5 million investment, Elon Musk became the largest shareholder of the company. He has served as CEO since 2008. According to Musk, the purpose of Tesla is to help expedite the move to sustainable transport and energy, obtained through electric vehicles and solar power. Tesla began production of its first car model, the Roadster sports car, in 2009. This was followed by the Model S sedan in 2012, the Model X SUV in 2015, the Model 3 sedan in 2017, and the Model Y crossover in 2020. The Model 3 is the all-time best-selling plug-in electric car worldwide, and, in June 2021, became the first electric car to sell 1 million units globally.[9] Tesla’s global sales were 936,222 cars in 2021, a 87% increase over the previous year,[10] and cumulative sales totaled 3 million cars as of August 2022.[11] In October 2021, Tesla’s market capitalization reached $1 trillion, the sixth company to do so in U.S. history.

There is little dispute, then, that Tesla has mass-produced an innovative form of transportation that has captured a slice of the automotive market. And made a ton of money for Elon Musk and investors.

That’s transportation. What about schooling? Have there been Tesla-like innovations in U.S. tax-supported public schools?

I argue that there have been such innovations over nearly two centuries in tax-supported public schooling but with far less glamor and pizazz than the smashing hit that Tesla cars have made in the past two decades.

Sure, time spans and institutional measures differ dramatically between producing cars and generating positive school outcomes. The market measures successful innovations, for example, by annual net profits and return on investment; schools, however, measure curricular and instructional innovations by their impact on students over a longer period of time rather than a few years.

Yet even this “bottom line” approach to measuring business innovations such as Tesla cars has an educational analogue over the past forty years with the public’s intense focus on students’ test results and holding schools accountable for those scores. The past four decades have seen a tightening of bonds between schooling and the economy, that is, schools’ primary function is to prepare workers for an ever-changing information-driven workplace.

OK, Larry, a reader might say, I’ll accept for the sake of argument your comparison of innovative Tesla cars in a profit-driven sector of the economy with innovations in public schools, a nearly two century-old, non-profit community institution.

So the question I ask is: what Tesla-like innovations have occurred in public schools?

In subsequent posts, I will offer three instances of innovations that have altered both the topography and substance of American schools: the Common School of the mid-19th century; the impact of educational Progressives between the 1890s-1940s; and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Not as flashy nor as quickly as Tesla cars have reshaped choices in personal transportation, to be sure, but innovations in schools have, indeed, occurred altering to a degree the substance and form of schooling.


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