Public Education: Start Again

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


In the interest of full disclosure, let me state here that I am not an expert in the field of education or education reform. Expertise will come from the contributors. However, others have told me that I have come up with some unique and successful solutions to challenges and quandaries. That said, when called on to brainstorm a challenge in an industry I am unfamiliar with (a fairly common occurrence in marketing), I test my thoughts constantly against those who have the depth of experience that I lack. Where I can usually tell when I have gone off track, the solution I have developed in concept for the problems that public education face and cause have obviously gone well beyond where educators feel comfortable. So while they have not called me crazy, neither can they tell me that I am on target. However, based on the consistency of my thoughts over the past four years, I will trust my intuition and take the risk to convey the ideas I have been turning over and over. I will trust in those who read these thoughts to either suggest modifications, additions, or total abandonment. But to those tempted to recommend the latter, be forewarned that I will challenge you to come up with reasons why this will not work, and then ask for your solutions to get to the goal.


Looking at most education reform efforts, it strikes me that most of them are modifications of the 20th Century system. I propose a 21st Century system based on these objectives:

  1. Extend education throughout life. Make it a part of our daily lives and have it begin with birth and end soon after death.
  2. Take education out of centralized buildings (schools) and make it the responsibility of the family, community, nation, and the world.
  3. Leverage technology to enable everyone to have access to the same resources.

Already some of you reading this are thinking utopia. Wait until you read the scenario. But I am convinced that the hard part is not imagining what can be, it is getting there. The transition from where we are to where we ultimately need to be will be an uphill battle, for all the entrenched constituencies.


Let’s look at this from the perspective of the individual and step it out to the world.

World culture > US culture > US education system > Individuals

  • Youth education is seen as a family function, augmented by a volunteer force of seniors, retirees, and experts available in the immediate and adjacent communities performing the roles of teacher, coach and mentor.
  • Youth education begins in the home using modules with lessons for parent, child and siblings.
  • Individual education is an individual’s obligation to society, advocated by federal law, supported by employers, communities and families.
  • Course topics cross all philosophies, languages, religions and beliefs for the old and the young they are teaching.
  • Team teaching is carried out in playgroups in neighborhoods in homes, community centers, parks and businesses. Groups of adults of all ages with similar interests meet in public and corporate settings as well as virtually within collaborative Web environments. Parents and children gather in homes and community centers, sharing interests and research and reporting progress among peers.
  • When the individual exhibits enough maturity, progress is self-determined, self-monitored, and presented to the relevant communities for input and use by others.
  • Learning happens in life: in the workplace, the libraries, on the farms, in the factories of the immediate and adjacent neighborhoods.
  • Scheduling, networking and cross leveling of resources is supported online.
  • Education is not seen as a formal stage of life, instead a life-long habit of reading, reflecting, exchanging and growing.

World culture > US culture > US education system

  • Facilitates discussions about learning, living and life.
  • Teaches self esteem, self-confidence and the value of improving one’s self, community, nation, world and legacy.
  • Gradually returns school buildings to alternative uses.

World culture > US culture

  • Gradually encourages lifelong learning
  • Respect for generations, races and all differences is built into every person’s thinking as they learn to rely on more and more people in order to learn, to carry out their obligation.

World culture

  • Understanding and respect for nationalities, beliefs, generations, races and all differences is built into every person’s thinking as they learn to rely on more and more people in order to learn, to carry out their obligation.

Obviously, there is a lot more to this than these bullets. But I suspect the picture begins to take shape for most, so let us start the discussion here and see where it goes.

20 Responses to “Solutions”

  1. Dan Spira said

    Nice work with this site, Stephen! Your overly humble disclosures aside, I believe you are more than qualified to state the challenges of public education as you have done, and reframe the potential solutions in terms of integrated, life-long learning.

    A lot of what you’ve written here reminds me of what I’ve seen in certain families and certain cultural traditions, which place learning at the center of family and community life. Conversely, I’ve seen families and cultural traditions where the situation is quite the opposite. I imagine the solution scenarios you describe, where we bring the school closer to the home, would play out very differently depending on the household. In fact, I think your modest proposal requires that certain values be in place within all U.S. communities, and this is the primary reason (along with entrenched institutions, agrarian traditions, etc.) that we won’t see your vision play out so quickly.

    Long term, I guess one could argue that the dismantling of centralized schools would force parents to accept that their child’s education is their primary responsibility… but that transition would probably be a very messy process.

    What about the centralized education system’s role as a social/national “glue,” through which we establish cultural norms and national identity? One could argue that the “glue” has come undone anyway, that we live in a more culturally fragmented world, etc. etc., but in reality, there is still a lot of acculturation that takes place through the school system. Perhaps the transition path from our current system to the one you describe would be to leverage whatever influence is left in “the system” to push forward those values needed to make your approach more viable? Worse case, we keep the public school system, but at least we’re imparting values of self-guided, life-long learning to the next generation.

    Either that, or someone has to figure out how to impart those values, en-masse, through Facebook, MySpace, X-box and Wii.

  2. srdill said


    You picked up on a theme that has recurred to me often: there are historic cultural precedents that have produced reliable, consistent education results for centuries. History and methods were preserved and progressed, societies flourished, and there was little difference in the economics, much less knowledge, among the communities. Over and over I see the “one-to-few” passing of lessons and history from elder to youth throughout time as an antidote to the lack of technology. It stands to reason that with the quantum advancement of communication technology we now enjoy allowing “one-to-many” distribution that we should by now have seen the reversal of the economic and knowledge inequities brought on by the industrial age. Instead, we have ever-widening disparities in the results from the world’s public education systems.

    The tendency is to overlay this unfamiliar new system over today’s familiar economy and cultures and expect a perfect match. The two cannot coexist. Imagine instead the majority of the world home schooling and you will be closer to the end state that we must move to. The transition would be gradual, starting with the development of curriculum and supporting materials and systems for couples as they conceive. Once prepared, communities—perhaps states or nations—will ‘turn on’ this new system and with each new conception plug the parents into classes, coaches and support groups. Learning how to parent and how to begin speaking to their child in utero would be coached and counseled by community members proven to have good knowledge and teaching skills. Five to six years later the local public schools would start the new year with no incoming kindergarten class, the five-year olds having been learning among their communities for most of their life. Each year, one more class would be eliminated in the schools.

    The problem with the acculturation that you attribute to our present school systems is the variance and inconsistency of the product. Bigotry, anger, intolerance and violence resulting anywhere is a sure sign that the system is not capable of inculcating the proper respect, attitudes and understanding necessary to be a responsible global citizen. In this new concept, a coalition of parents and adults of all ages would take part in the raising of every child. As each child proved their proficiency in increasing numbers of subjects, they too would become teachers. Students for any one instructor could be local or distant, using the Internet to connect and various directories to find the right instructor. Cultural learning would be homogenized as more of what we learned was taught by people of different backgrounds, races, native languages and cultures. Replicate that model hundreds of thousands of times across a state, millions of times across a nation, and billions of times around the world and there is bound to be a paradigm shift in the role of parents, the integration of child rearing into career management, and a transfer of the social/national glue you refer to from the schools we have now to the broader environment of communities known as the world.

    The first few cohorts may be rough going, there are many who were never raised by one or more full-time parents. These are the people I see around me who do not know it is their responsibility to toilet train their child, thinking that is the preschool’s task. These are the dual-income parents who want the preschool to feed their child because they are too busy in the morning to handle it. But over time, this new approach is sure to introduce these people to peers who have figured it out, or who took advantage of the many good books, or who had wonderful role models in their parents.

    Does this make sense? Am I missing something? Is there a reason we should not have this for our progeny?

    Thanks again for your input Dan. I invite you and others to sound this out and return with more aspects of the challenge we face in bringing about this transition.

    • Tom Haynes said


      You’re much deeper thinker than poor old me, but what are the underlying assumptions about people in general that would support the type or reform you are discussing?

      In my observations there is a 85/15 rule. 15% of the population will take the responsibility to get involved to the point you’re talking about. The other 85% will have to be constantly pushed, cajoled or otherwise motivated. 85% of the population doesn’t want to think about or deal withe the effort required to make the kind of change you’re describing. So how do you move such a dramatic change to the education system forward?

      One other aspect of your discussion makes me uncomfortable and maybe I just don’t understand your perspective. “Cultural learning would be homogenized”? I’m not sure I would want that. So I will need to hear more.

      You also describe some behavioral issues in with the educational discussion. Are you saying changing the educational method is required to affect change in young adults so that they understand and accept responsibility for raising their children? My experience is a little different. I see the youngest parents accepting and showing more responsibility in raising their children properly from a behavioral and cultural perspective. It may be a regional thing as I have spent considerable time in the south and mid-west and see a more conservative social norm than is exhibited in the northeast or the the west coast or is reported since the mainstream media is dominated from those two regions.

      Anyway its an interesting discussion even though I’m not as eloquent as yourself or Dan.

      • Tom, I am WAY late in responding to this; my apologies for letting it slip below the radar! Your observation of the level of responsibility that people accept these days is probably accurate, unfortunately so for those of us driving, or being waited on in restaurants, or any of the thousands of daily activities that fall short of our expectations because someone crucial to the experience doesn’t care.

        The answer to that challenge involves time. Time to design this new system, all the while communicating with the world what the team is considering and coming up with. Then more time once the framework is agreed upon to test the various fundamentals, reporting constantly on what is being seen as we test ways to train parenting and whether or not the test subjects are pleased with the experience and the results. Other teams testing infrastructure, still others testing existing learning materials and courses. And even more people will be working through all the implications to teachers, buildings, unions, standards, tax structures, and a hundred other interdependent steps in the process of conversion and sustainment. The aim, aside from being able to sell the new system to governments around the world, is to raise awareness of the benefits of said new system.

        One of the effects of this gradual stream of information into the world’s awareness will be the subtle modeling of responsibility for those who are not conscious that they exhibit little of it. Responsibility is learned. It took generations for parents to forget their obligation to teach values to their children—the foundation of social responsibility—it will take a while to remind them.

        You will notice that the new system will begin with parents and those parents will begin with training. Values (honesty, respect, appreciation, understanding, etc.) and responsibility will be crucial elements in that training. Does that help to understand why I am not worried about the impact of the current state of self indulgence?

        Your concern about my choice of “homogenized” may be well founded. Looking it up I see the majority of the definitions and synonyms are all about losing our individuality. Only a few come close to what I had in mind: integrate, mix, or mingle. My vision is learning about other people’s religions, cultures, customs, history and environments as a result of the technology that allows our teacher or some of our class to be thousands of miles away. Instead of leaving that learning to only those who choose to study such things, increased awareness of our place within a global population will likely be a constant and subtle element of learning any topic. Since we will all be learning and teaching throughout our lives in this new system, I see a world growing much more understanding of our differences as people.

        Your question whether or not there is regional disparity in the parenting skills of young parents is a good one. However, rather than dig for the data, can we agree that there is little-to-no consistency in parenting knowledge or methods across the planet? As with most learned skills, there are bound to be some competent parents. But from personal experience, observation, and basic probability there is room for improvement in even the best of parents, simply because we have no way to be sure that all parents get some exposure to the fundamentals of what it takes to succeed. As a reminder, the first goal that started me on this journey was to come up with a way to teach parents how to parent as well as we taught them how to give birth.

        Thanks for your time and thoughts, Tom. I look forward to hearing if this was helpful.

  3. Jeff Camp said

    A framework for thinking about the various approaches that people take to making schools work better can be found at (Look for the Education Impact Guide.)

    The Guide doesn’t purport to be a book of solutions — just an aid to thinking and learning about the options. It is organized around an intentionally banal statement: “Education is Students and Teachers spending Time In a Place for Learning with the Right Stuff and a System that Supports Success.”

    Full Circle Fund is a volunteer organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Its members come from businesses, non profits, and public sector organizations.

  4. Alicia said

    In terms of education reform, I believe The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is doing some nice work. What I value the most is how they are weaving creativity skills into core learning.

    The solutions outlined on this page made think of the 1/2 hour I spent with my son’s kindergarten class last week. I am currently studying for an MS in Creativity, Innovation and Change Leadership at Buffalo State…and I am also interested in education. One of the techniques we learned at Buffalo is called TIM (Torrance Incubation Model for Teaching and Learning). In a nutshell, TIM can be used for teaching core educational subjects while weaving in creativity skills.

    Before I dove into developing the lesson I asked my son to show me how he learned to skip count in class (his class was familiar with counting by 5’s and 10’s). He said he needed some blocks, so we went to the toy room and he started sifting through Legos to collect all the blue double blocks. Well, we didn’t have enough blocks to skip count by 2’s up to 30.

    When I asked my son to substitute a different colored block, he met my question with a blank stare. He had been conditioned to counting with blue blocks and was unable to switch colors or use different materials. I found this experience enlightening and figured if my son’s young mind was already set on a particular method for skip counting, then introducing flexibility might help his classmates as well.

    I decided to us TIM and teach skip counting while weaving in the creativity skill of flexibility. In reflecting on TIM with my son’s teacher, she was amazed at how challenging it was for her class to think outside of the box. To warm up, I worked on mental flexibility (which turned out to be physical flexibility too). I put two pieces of tape about 3 feet apart and asked the students to cross from one piece of tape to the other any which way they’d like – the caveat…they had to make their crossing unique and couldn’t copy anyone else. Of the 18 students, about 12 wanted to participate. Some skipped, some hopped, some crossed like a hamster while one student chose to do a somersault and another did a cartwheel.

    Through debriefing on this warm up the students said at first they could only think of one way to cross – walking…and they were surprised to learn of the other 12 ways. This opened the door to showing how there are multiple methods to skip count by two’s. We used paper clips, a number chart and an addition worksheet. Each student “experimented” with the different methods to see if each would provide the same solution (i.e. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10…)

    The best part of this exercise was when my son’s teacher said she was going to integrate flexibility into her teaching method. She had an “AHA” moment in realizing some of the students felt uncomfortable thinking on their own and not being able to look to a teacher to take their lead.

  5. Alicia, thank you so much for this example of how even “good” (and certainly well-meaning) teachers can still miss crucial developmental triggers in the training of another human being. I have told this story a half-dozen times among parents and teachers and the punch line, as it were, always hits them the same: “Oh! Of course! I see how that could happen.”

    Teaching almost anything is not easy, but if we were all teachers, taught by people using tools that made sure our learning style was accommodated, the topic was soundly covered, there was room to explore to satisfy our curiosity, etc., etc. then we would likely see a rise in the quality of teachers, comprehension, and retention. Don’t you think? The secret is a change of culture to encourage life-long learning.

    Keep us posted on other learnings along the trail to your MS, won’t you?

  6. Brad Brummel said

    Wow! That was very interesting to read, society is changing and maybe education should as well. I really like the push for lifelong learning, and any new change would be worthless if it did not weigh heavily on technology. I honestly don’t think we know the potential technology can impact learning.

    • Brad, glad you enjoyed the mental jog. As I look at our future, I see the challenge not as knowing the potential of technology, because we have witnessed so many leaps in capability and utilization over the past 30 years. Instead, I see the challenge in transitioning to a culture that recognizes, respects and fosters the potential of humans to determine their own destiny. How does the model look once implemented? Once we have that, how many steps are necessary to go from where we are to that model? How many years will it take so as to not cause the upheaval that often accompanies rapid change.

      So let’s keep thinking on this. Bounce it off of your friends, asking them to picture public education as they would create it if they were tasked to come up with something totally new. Let us know what you hear.

      • Lucinda said

        I am a teacher… I believe we have met before, but I just now noticed your post on Ken Robinson’s facebook page and was curious to find if there was a group working on a revolution.
        Have you looked at any of the work of Educators from Reggio Emilia, Italy?
        A huge piece of their work involves uncovering what we believe about children.

        I just did a presentation for Lesley Univ. in which I speak about how capable and intelligent the human child is. I , too, believe we need to transition our culture, or educate our society on the reality of a child’s ability to learn far before he/she ever enters school, to look closely at how children learn, what is learning? How do you know when you’ve learned something?? How do you know when your students have learned?

        The work from Reggio Emilia begins with young children and families.
        It is NOT a deficit model, which is where our schools begin.
        RE begins with the child and the child’s interests.
        I believe a good education is also a social experience. Coming together in learning communities is tremendously important. When we share our thinking, listen to other’s ideas, reflect and reframe our thinking, ask more questions… we learn.
        You might also be interested of the work that comes from Harvard’s Project Zero, Making Learning Visible.

        I like the idea of a revolution, as Ken Robinson talks about.
        I am so anxious for a change and to see a difference in my lifetime!

      • Lucinda,

        Lucinda, many thanks for your comments and the referral to Reggio Emilia—the second time someone has recommended it to me in two weeks. The concept of families and communities learning together throughout their lives is central to the All New Public Education concept, so it sounds like I need to come up to speed on RE to learn the lessons of their experience. Thanks also for the reference to Project Zero, another program I am unfamiliar with.

        Regarding Sir Ken’s call for revolution, I wonder how he sees it happening. My attempts to call the President’s attention to the role he can play in convening a global task force to decide a strategy and implementation plan were graciously acknowledged with a form letter. With as many pressing urgent matters as face the government today, it will take a group with considerable aggregate stature to gain the attention that this issue merits. I would hope that we could leverage Sir Ken’s reputation to bring together the many experts and notables who see the current system as fundamentally flawed. Could we see the revolution in our lifetimes? Anything is possible, but I have always considered this my 150-year project. “Learning communities,” as you so accurately term them, enabled by technology, will cross borders, engendering respect and understanding to a degree humans have always aspired to but never known, and raise the level of compassion and interpersonal connection among individuals dispersed throughout the world on a scale we can barely imagine. While I suspect geopolitical and socio-economic distinctions will rapidly diminish as factors in predicting access to knowledge, this so flies in the face of nationalism and evolution as we know it that the speed of change will undoubtedly alarm those in positions of power who depend on those distinctions. Attrition is a slow process, so I’m not convinced all this will happen while you and I are around to witness it. For the sake of our grand children, I push onward from the faith that rebuilding public education from scratch is going to happen.

        Spread the word, Lucinda!

  7. Glenn Warren said

    In America going forward, it will be desirable for each citizen to be an active part of the education system.
    We must all become life long learners and we must all be teachers. In the model I envision, we would give everyone the opportunity and responsibility to teach their passion or their profession (during some period(s) of their lives – think sabbatical).
    An interesting article has been published in the Weekly Standard, written by P.J. O’Rourke, titled “End Them, Don’t Mend Them: It’s time to shutter America’s bloated schools”.'t-mend-them

    The outline which P.J. proposes would allow for the type of outcome which I have briefly described, at a cost less than or equal to what we spend now, and with a reward to the teachers in excess of what is currently paid for teaching.

    • danspira said

      Thank you for sharing this great comment / article, Warren… it was a real eye-opener!

    • We’re on the same page, Glenn! Many thanks for the link to the essay. PJ’s humor aside, the numbers he cites back the simple observation I sent to the President in a letter: “For so many reasons well documented elsewhere, public education today is a highly unpredictable system. We cannot expect consistent results in one school over 5 years, much less the entire nation going forward. When a system is broken it is a waste of time to focus on bandages if no one is developing a cure for the cause. Can we entertain a two-pronged approach that maintains buildings and programs for a little while longer while another team starts from square one?”

      In particular, I appreciate O’Rourke’s observation that public education provided a crucial transition path out of the chaotic mix of cultures and education that we as a nation began with. But that is not the challenge of education now, nor is it the method best tuned to the lifestyles present and the technology available. I smiled at his reference to hiring Aritstotle, as I often use this image of a gathering of students around a sage, wise, loving mentor under trees on a mountainside, in a public library, or in a corporate data center when trying to help people see what I see for education of the future. Note that such a model of education is a free market, performance-driven model capable of being fine-tuned to the learning styles and needs of of the pupils, as well as the expertise of the teacher.

      The implications of your statement, “… desirable for each citizen to be an active part of the education system” bear some discussion. It’s easy to think that what you are saying is akin to parent involvement in schools, as simple as chaperoning a field trip, or as intensive as committing 2 hours in the classroom per week. But that is not what I hear when I read that, and I suspect you do not either. I am not fully convinced of this, but very close to believing that public education is not a right. It’s a personal obligation. The access to tools (public broadband), societal understanding and support, and buy-in of companies of all sizes would have to happen first, but the perception of education as a public right somehow guaranteed by the Constitution is what leads repeatedly back to all the ills of the current system. How can a government at any level stand behind a system that is 400 million unique educational objectives, all on different time schedules, all with different standards for comprehension and completion? Or fund such a system if the sources of information and training (i.e. the end point of the money trail) are distributed throughout the globe?

      The benefits of the new system—whatever it becomes—will be measured not in academic criteria, but in peace, self fulfillment, understanding, collaboration, and plurality. These are the criteria of global citizens, the only true end point of any education system. Do you agree?

  8. […] Hat tip to Glenn Warren / Stephen Dill, on this discussion. […]

  9. […] You have framed the problems very eloquently & touched a nerve here – np – can never tell these daysthis wordpress hack, @klintron – are you […]

  10. […] Solutions […]

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  13. Well all right, then, Anthony! Care to expand on that theme a little more?

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