Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

Will Public Education Remain Public?

Posted by Stephen Dill on November 7, 2010

As already established under the Current Problem tab: “The majority of schools work on an annual calendar that was driven by the needs of an agrarian society. The curriculum still largely reflects the needs of the industrial age.” But there’s more! I posit that the roadblock to developing anyone’s individualized education plan is the very funding mechanism of public education: the public! Inherent in the school laws from the very start of this nation is the concept that the collected opinion of the residents of any town, state or nation—otherwise known as government—would know what you the individual would need to know throughout your life. And while that mandate to provide teachers for small communities and grammar schools for larger communities was a great step forward for the progress of mankind, there was never an assessment process put in place to make sure the system was relevant and in step with the times.

The colonial classroomWhile appropriate for its day (and the three centuries afterward), the inexorable inertia of that concept has burdened society with a financial commitment the founders could never have foreseen and put those who are aware of poor results of the “one size fits all” education system in a rather daunting predicament. How DO we alter our education system to address the needs of the individual?

Try this on for size: what if education of the public was a private matter? Not privatizing public education, but disassembling public education and turning it over to every citizen. What if the only “public” piece was the online infrastructure that allowed every parent, child, young adult, and adult to research, find, and schedule learning experiences?

While I have been thinking about this for years, a Facebook note from Chris Brogan pushed me to get this out to the rest of you. Lifelong learning, a core concept behind All New Public Education, is a highly individual experience. As Sugata Mitra has proven, when given the chance, every single person is going to follow a unique path to learning. What the current system institutes beyond grade 12 and age 18 (two archaic frames of reference) could actually occur much earlier (or later), and should be encouraged to happen throughout life: we each are willing to find and pay for our individual education. We are long past the mass education that Frank Feather speaks of elsewhere in this blog. It’s time to put in place a system that allows for the changes in course that all of us go through in our lives.

Recent discussions with Michelle Rhee and other educators on this topic reveal that most people in public education feel strongly that there are core subjects that everyone must be taught at an early age. For example, from Ms. Rhee:

I agree that not every child learns in the same way, and great teachers are able to individualize instruction to address those differences. We also need to make sure kids have real world skills when they exit the system, and should definitely be ensuring that children get outside the classroom and take advantage of all kinds of learning environments throughout their years in public school. But I also believe in teaching the core skills you mention below [I had cited history, arts, language, and science], and believe they can be taught in the classroom.

Is it just me, or do others hear this as the response of someone convinced that government must pay for education, and as a result, must test and grade as proof of money well spent? If education is about learning what a person is passionate about, and that changes throughout their lifetime, then the only one who determines if they have learned enough is the student. Eliminate the government funding and you return the responsibility for personal education to the person. If every course cost you money, would you have bought some of the topics you were forced to (presumably, temporarily) learn throughout your public school years (or private school, for that matter)?

I hear the exclamations now: “You’d let a child decide what they want to learn and when?!?” Yes, and no. Children will be part of a team; no one should have to operate in a vacuum. That team will be a fabric made up of parents, relatives, neighbors, and teachers the parents have learned from themselves or otherwise identified as being well suited to facilitate in children the realization of how to learn. This is society as humans once knew it, extended ‘families’ of mutual support, the trappings of which are still practiced in some of the least modernized nations. Imagine bringing the technology of interconnection into such a social fabric! Now the fabric includes people in locations dispersed throughout the world, relationships forged by mutual interests and experiences. There is the best spend for public funds: the network of resources and the process to take advantage of those resources. Can you imagine how different life would be if our property taxes didn’t have to support education?

As Ms. Rhee and a few others have pointed out, this sounds more like a philosophical discussion than education reform. Not being clairvoyant, I cannot say what the future holds, but I can only hope that other dramatic cultural and societal change has come to the world from asking a similar question: if we could start all over from scratch, what would it look like? If so, that means there is hope that such history will repeat itself and we will see a world of lifelong learners. Until then—or at least for the next 70 years or so—I will keep asking the question. Will you?

14 Responses to “Will Public Education Remain Public?”

  1. Stephen, as usual you provoke important thinking and discussion on the future of education. I, like you, believe that our current education system is not sustainable. It is well intentioned but can’t deliver the outcomes we need in the 21st century. We need to experiment with new system approaches designed around the student. I don’t claim to know what all the components of a new system should be or how it will work (although I have some ideas). I do know that we need system level experiments that are free from the constraints of our current intransigent systems. We need to deploy technology in a more disruptive way in our experiments. We need to try different financing and incentive models. We need to be open to different roles played by all of the actors in the system. I tend to agree with you that education models should be about life-long learning and must be personalized.

    We have proven through the charter movement that we can design new schools that can deliver the outcomes we are looking for. Now we need to demonstrate that we can design new systems at greater scale that can too. Our work in the BIF Student Experience Lab is creating a real world platform for systems level experiments in education. It is early in our effort but I am optimistic that we can design, prototype, and test new education systems that deliver better student outcomes. It is time to get on with it. Students are waiting.

    • Thanks Saul, I can easily see the BIF Student Experience Lab as a testing mechanism for determining the best practices that we need to carry forward into the new system. As you and I have discussed, my recommendation that we start from scratch means we temporarily suspend our awareness of what is working (or not) today in order to gradually build from a zero-stage topic, such as what is education? But once we go from there to fill out what is a student, who is a student, when is a student given access to information, how is a student taught, and onward to a full framework of a new system of lifelong education, then we will want to look at the results the BIF Student Experience Lab is telling us will accomplish what the new program(s) need.

      My only edit of your comment? We are all students. The World is waiting.

  2. Your questions have really got me fired up. Thinking only off the top of my head, the fundamental goal of education must be to teach children the skills of effective communication. Thus, it is imperative that students be taught in depth in the areas of speaking and writing. As well, a significant part of early learning should focus on study skills, i.e., critical reading and annotating text, note taking and other skills that will prepare a student to better learn. A significant part of this should include public speaking and the ability to advocate a position.

    Another area that I think is lacking in our grammar school education process is language learning. In virtually every other country, school aged children are expected to learn multiple languages. Certainly, there will be students who struggle with language, and perhaps for them, there should be an endpoint that comes sooner in the process. But for the rest, reading and speaking another language should be required learning, preferably one that is spoken in countries and communities with which we interact on a regular basis.

    History is also very important, but I believe should be integrated into a process of learning that focuses on a worldview. The subject should include modern-day issues with a perspective into the geopolitical climate that examines the current situation as well as how the situation evolved, which would necessarily include an in-depth historical and geographic analysis. One significant challenge in teaching history is the degree of subjectivity of the material. Thus, it is very important that students be provided multiple perspectives from multiple teachers. Some amount of history teaching is important to assure that students have a background into who we are and our place in the world. Once this is achieved, should there continue to be required history learning? I’m not sure, but I am interested in hearing what others have to say.

    Science learning is perhaps more challenging. On the one hand, we should provide students with a broad array of science teaching. Some kids will absolutely gravitate to certain scientific topics but be repelled by others. I would not be comfortable with a system that allows the student to discontinue science on the basis that after one or two subjects, they determined that they were not “ science kids.” On the other hand, why continue to torture a child who clearly is not in the least bit interested in science?

    Basic math skills are also essential. But as with science, beyond the basics, there can be point of frustration and diminishing returns when forcing a student to continue down the path with which they are not interested and will not be successful.

    Perhaps the greatest disappointment in public education is the treatment of the arts. When budgets are tight, it is nearly always the arts programs that suffer first. They are deemed to be not as important as other subjects. And yet there are numerous students who would absolutely excel, find career paths, and otherwise improve the world around us with an in-depth arts education which is all but nonexistent in many students’ lives.

    Computer skills are also of critical importance. This would certainly include the basics of understanding how to use a word processor and spreadsheet. And it should also be mandatory that students learn how to use a keyboard properly. In the age of the Internet, being able to communicate quickly and effectively by electronic means is imperative. But computer skills training should go beyond the basics for those that are interested. Our economy is so heavily dependent on computer-based applications which are easily learned at an early age that it seems a shame not to be teaching the skills to children who are interested. This could also be a direction where kids who are not as interested in math or science may find a liking and direction.

    It seems a big part of your premise is that children should have some input into the direction of their education. There seems to be no reason why some amount of elective courses could not be offered at an early age, perhaps as soon as fifth for sixth grade. As well, your idea that the school calendar could be significantly reformed has great appeal for me. Having a son who is currently looking at colleges, I have seen several different variations of the semester/trimester/Dartmouth plan, each of which has benefits and burdens. What is most important about all of these scheduling varieties is that they provide the student with a higher level of flexibility to learn a variety of new material in a shorter amount of time. The traditional school calendar simply does not provide enough opportunity for elective-based learning.

    Another sore subject is standardized testing. In some respects, it is essential that we know that students have the necessary communication skills and basic math skills to be able to survive and thrive in the modern world. But beyond this, the testing is stressful for students and administrators, and creates an artificial teaching environment where teachers are forced to educate their students with priorities that are dictated by the test, rather than what the student may want or need. Perhaps once the basic skill set is achieved, standardized testing should be much more targeted to the very specific areas where the student seeks to obtain competence (i.e. directed by the student, rather than the system).

    My final area of concern for today is the school environment. The public-school education model requires that administrators take all students from a community and distribute them more or less equally throughout their classrooms. This creates many challenges, especially at the early stage of learning. Students learn differently and at different speeds. A student who learns more quickly is hampered by the students who do not. Those who need more time may feel that they are left behind when a class moves at a faster speed. Likewise, a student who is eager to learn is held back by a student who is disruptive or needier. (This would likely lead to a long discussion of students with special needs and disabilities and how best to integrate them into society, but I would leave this for another day.) I am always disturbed to hear about faculty and administrators who are forced to succumb to students and parents who are looking for an easy way out when it comes to the burden of their education, such as reducing homework load, objecting to dress code, and refusing to abide by disciplinary rules. Segregating students by their ability and willingness to learn is challenging and can be expensive, but I think it is a necessary objective of a modern education system.

    • Well something certainly inspired you, Michael! Obviously you have been thinking about these topics for a while. I’m a little blown away with all these requirements, I suspect you are concerned about some of them as well. I can only ask, what kind of infrastructure (os system) do you envision providing all this coursework? Would it be centralized or dispersed? You mention some things we currently call “grade levels,” does that mean you see everyone needing to learn these topics at roughly the same time or when they were ready for it? What would a day in the life look like in this world?

  3. Sabrina said

    I’m still mulling over the bits and pieces of this, though I certainly agree that education cannot be the centralized, standardized affair it is now. Learning should be learner-driven, instead of driven by what is convenient for the system.

    But in your vision, how would we ensure equal educational opportunities for people who can’t pay for them? That’s one major reason we have a publicly-funded system– because not everyone has the resources to privately account for their own (or their children’s) learning experiences.

    • Sabrina, good question! Though it’s not the right time to think through all of the interdependencies of a system that is globally distributed, largely self-driven, and near-fully privatized, my gut feel is that such a system would be so much more human and humane than what we have grown up with that no one will go without what they need for access to resources and support for learning.

      Timing is a key element of success of this revolution. Attempting to address any one aspect out of sequence could stall the logical evolution of the entire system. The process of developing the next education system will begin at the conceptual level—to include what individual needs look like. The major modules defined in the first step will then be tested to be sure they can meet those “needs of everyone.” Defining tactical implementations and testing their economics will be somewhat later.

      I understand your concern, and echo it. I have faith that the definition of a workable system for lifelong education will include universal access. Does that make sense?

  4. The last comments’ focus is one of the reasons I’m still in public ed. We don’t need more resources.. we need to be more resourceful. Public ed currently has most all of what we need.. excellent teachers & admin, incredible parents, most of our students, government money, 65 bill – right?

    At a Steve Hargadon Future of Ed webinar last week, Greg Limperis was saying in the chat that we need to start ed from scratch. He then was asked, within the system or outside? His response was spot on. As the system, in and out.

    I think that’s what Saul’s Student Experience Lab and Babson College are after with their connected adjacency relationship. We need innovation labs in every district until we all get enough detox (break away from a system based on compliance and rule following). We need to get this personalized learning down before kids even enter a system of ed.

    The standard is personalization. For this to happen, we believe the only standardized curriculum is a process of learning. If we focus on that process, no matter what a leaner chooses to learn, that process will become second nature, and we will have self-constructed learners who know what to do when they don’t know what to do.

    Our vision, within a four year plan kids developed, is that k-8 is where kids are exposed to many things through logic, gaming and programming, 9-12 is like a quasi college, 12+ like a quasi career. We think this allows a safe place for 9-12 to venture after their dreams and college kids to afford ongoing ed. We see the city as being a hub of resources… your school design it. ie: chem lab at 11 on tues by so and so – your choice. Sugata Mitra style: provide the resources (which definitely include face to face facilitators, and experts), but don’t manage. Self constructed learners is what we need. That includes all of us.

    This is certainly a Mesh (Lisa Gansky) opportunity. We do have this cognitive surplus (Clay Shirky), excess knowledge, generosity and the tech to share it. You really can do/be/learn whatever you want. We believe that facilitating people’s dreams/connections – will blow us away. Health, budget, poverty, homelessness, …

    If we do it right, if we allow ourselves to be clever, if we listen to learner’s voices, public ed will be the vehicle to social change.

    • Monika,

      My apologies, I am not sure I ever read your comments thoroughly. If I had I certainly would have responded sooner!

      I am absolutely in agreement with your end result: “… public ed will be the vehicle to social change.” I would love to see Greg’s vision come true, that the system we currently have reorganizes itself into a new system of student-centered, lifelong learning. How that change will come about for all of a state’s educational system, then the nation, is the question. While I love the vision you lay out that sets up resources and allows students to draw from them as soon as they are aware of their own need for them, I wonder if such a system could ever be put in place with an organic, grassroots effort? I’ve always envisioned a top-down approach in order to bring the benefits to everyone rapidly and—most importantly—consistently across the country (and around the world in my ideal scenario).

      Have you heard of any districts offering what you speak about? Certainly the free schools and unschools, and to a great extent, the home schools are offering much of what you suggest. But a public school system?

      Thanks again for your contribution, Monika. I have widened my network with some of the resources you mentioned (Greg & Lisa), I appreciate that.

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  6. Betsy McGrath said

    I am struck by own educational experience from the 70’s in Lakewood, Ohio. In my elementary school we were tested in various ways to assess our learning styles. Then we were placed in multi-aged learning groups and assigned to teams of teachers whose teaching styles matched our learning styles. We all had time on each of the various subject areas each day. However, within those, I know my group was allowed tremendous freedom to explore ideas at our own pace, with our teachers acting as coaches and the library – which we referred to as a learning resource center – always available to us. I know other learning groups might have had more structure. I loved learning and that school experience in particular. Sadly, it abruptly ended with middle school.

    • Betsy,

      Thanks for sharing! That sounds like a program that was on the right track: student centered, grouped by learning style instead of cohort, progress measured by the individual’s readiness to move on, etc. Just out of interest, do you know if that program still survives? Do you remember if there was any testing, and if so, how it was conducted? And how involved were parents in the classroom or any of the learning? Was there homework?

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