Every great endeavor starts with a vision – a picture of what is possible or a mental picture of what the future holds. Putting a man on the moon, eradicating polio, desktop computing, online streaming (to name just a few) – all came about because people could envision a different way and broke the constraints of contemporary paradigms. Changing the American public education system requires a vision that will challenge us, break the current design, and force us to backward plan from our best estimate of what our students will face in the Year 2035.
Presenting a vision of the future is risky, especially if people expect one to take steps to realize that vision. Change the status quo; backward plan from an “unknowable” future; change a system that everyone is used to and invested in – no thank you. So, we creep along with vague and unactionable vision statements found on almost every district’s website: “we will ensure every child succeeds,” “our district will be the premier urban school district,” “our students will have equitable opportunities,” “we will develop a community of energized educators,” “we will educate students who will contribute to a diverse society.” No paradigms broken here, and controversy is avoided – vision is overrated anyway!
In the end, if an organization does not move purposefully toward some likely future, then any path forward will do, and it is likely to be the path they are currently on.
But, just as Simba (from the Lion King) knew that he was living a hakuna matata lie, maybe some of you in the quiet of the night know what you have to do. We just need a few leaders willing to create a different vision for American public education. Indeed, the biggest failure of the current education ecosystem is its inability to envision what the future holds for our students and to make systemic changes now to prepare them for that future. Courageous leaders need to put some stakes in the ground as to what the future world and workplace will look like and what skills and competencies our students will need to be successful in that future. Then they need to take steps to prepare students for that future. In the end, if an organization does not move purposefully toward some likely future, then any path forward will do, and it is likely to be the path they are currently on.
Of course, a vision cannot be pie in the sky and must be at least loosely tied to the possible. When it comes to the education system, the most likely version of the future is stark. Right now, less than 35% of the nation’s students can read and do math at grade level. This percentage is around 15% for poor and minority students. In the 20 years before COVID, during the great reform era, we educators moved the needle only a few percentage points. Now, after COVID, we are back to square one.
Given the fact that the profession used the huge investment in public education (ESSER monies), not to make systemic change, but to return to “normal”, there is very little reason to believe the next 20 years will be significantly different. No, in the next 10 years we will experience innumerable ground hog days, except we won’t be any better at playing the piano.
Beyond educators not willing or unable to change the public education system, economic developments might dampen any sense of urgency among the public. We are witnessing in real time the expansion of the “gig economy” and the exponential growth of artificial intelligence. And there seems to be a growing symbiotic relationship between the two. As artificial intelligence becomes more ubiquitous, forcing workers out of “left-brain” jobs, companies have greater labor options and can take advantage of outsourcing low skilled tasks to the gig economy. Amazon’s Flex and DSP delivery programs presage this type of shift in the labor market and a trend that is likely to grow quickly.
The percentage of low-skilled jobs will likely grow, and the higher- to medium-skilled jobs will decrease. If the percentage of jobs requiring post-secondary education decreases to around 35%, it will match the education level of society. Many will undoubtedly believe that this is the invisible hand at work with the labor force or feel less urgency to change a system that generally provides the employees the market requires. “Mike, thanks for the pushing us with the vision thing and all, but maybe you should relax, have a cream soda,” they’ll say in their best mobster impersonation.
And part of me thinks it might be O.K. if most people find that the gig economy jobs provide the right employee value proposition for them. The problem is that poor and minority people will have less economic mobility and without a strong education will be greatly overrepresented in lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs.
This dire picture of public education in the future does not have to come to pass. We can change it. A different future will start with a different vision, different design principles, and a way to transform this monolithic education system. I will outline at least one vision and way forward in future blog posts.