Public Education a Latecomer to Modernity


A killer of previously successful organizations is the failure to adjust to modernity. With over 100 years of continuous operation, IBM is a prime example of an organization that has adjusted its business strategies and practices to be contemporary. Public education suffers from a failure to adjust to the demands of modernity. The cost and politics of public education partially explain the failure of the field to benefit from the innovations of modernization.

By now it is evident that students from various backgrounds and circumstances have extraordinary capacity but are stymied by the lack of access to modern tools, pedagogy, and best practices. Like textbooks of the previous century, every public school student must have access to a personal computing device. The personal computing device must be linked to digital media and educational content. All instructional pedagogy must be personalized, student centered, and informed by immediate access to relational data analytics. And, practices such as competency based sequences, blended learning, focus on student work, access to universal PreK, and the restructuring of teacher compensation are fundamental to the modernization of public education. It is easy to be distracted from the main work of schools by demanding time and attention be paid to matters of administration and management.

The pre-eminent distraction from teaching and learning is the preoccupation with accountability and its measurement. There is a very old debate (Dewey vs. Thorndike…) about the utility of tests and measurement in education. Current policy and practice has, for the moment, resolved the debate—accountability testing is the premiere methodology for determining the success of public schooling. The approach appears to be at odds with the skill sets necessary for success in higher education and the workplace. Both settings depend upon innovation to survive—the enormous facilities and program development underway at Columbia University is a striking example of the need to keep up with modernity. Failing to do so for a university or a business is a death knell. The same is true for public education but the institutional resistance to change is legendary. It is very hard to argue that accountability, the policy imperative for over a decade, is, or should be, the cornerstone of a modern, high quality education in any community.

Another distraction is the domination of administration and management over curriculum and instruction in a school or school district. The amount of time practitioners spend on reports, audits, complying with rules and regulations, and managing human and material resources is staggering. It is a wonder that teaching and learning takes place. Clearly, there is not enough instructional time to ensure that students emerge from the PreK-12 experience educationally prepared to collaborate or compete with their counterparts from other parts of the world. Some schools and districts have extended instructional time and implemented more rigorous curricula. But doing more of the same thing is likely to get the same result. Given the 74,000,000 students attending PreK-12 schools, the administration and management of schools is a stunning accomplishment. There is no corporation of comparable size and scope. Only the United States military has some similarities but it is distinct in its hierarchy and chain of command and limited constituents.

This is particularly poignant if and when it is understood that the commitment to universal access, high school graduation, and expectations of high achievement for all students are relatively new mandates. And, the capacity to ensure that all children have access to a PreK-12 schooling experience and emerge career and college ready lags far behind the new conception of pre-collegiate education. Unfortunately, the administration and management of pre-collegiate education is only part of the equation necessary to fulfill current mandates.

Recent attempts to develop administrative remedies intent on achieving contemporary goals have not moved schools and communities closer to the demands of modernity. Such remedies as vouchers, home schooling, Charter Schools, privatization, national standards, or state take over of schools and districts are administrative and managerial strategies that have failed to produce quality education for all students and communities. It is the limited focus on administration and management that has rendered public education a latecomer to modernity. Clearly, there is something missing.

It is the content of PreK-12 schooling that must dictate the administration and management of the enterprise. The content of PreK-12 education is and has been hackneyed and moribund despite the mandates of modernity. Even the best performing Charter Schools, the current paragon of school reform, delivers traditional curricula that lag behind what is required for career and college readiness. What we know about and have learned from the cognitive sciences, art, philosophy, technology, and the sociology of education is barely evident in pre-collegiate schooling—particularly in new Charter Schools.

As a discipline, education is a composite of information from multiple fields of knowledge. The narrowing of PreK-12 education to the mechanics of the key performance indicators used in business and industry or the dictates of accountability is to relegate education to its 19th and 20th century conceptions. Efficiency matters but it does not honor the knowledge and pedagogy required now and in the near future.

A PreK-12 education that is anchored in modernity must reflect but not be limited to constructivist pedagogy, progressive philosophy, art and humanities, linguistics, digital media, data analytics, technology, human development, organizational structure and development, continuous improvement, and the function of schooling in community and society. This is so because the world economy is flat, knowledge workers are the requirement of this century, innovation and entrepreneurship are essential to the common good, and eradication of inequality is a mandate of the epoch.

Educating the young to get a job is passe—individuals are likely to have five careers in a modern, extended lifetime. Increasingly, post secondary education is fundamental to civic and economic participation. Nourishing the imagination is as important to modernity as problem solving. All human transactions will occur within a multicultural, multi-ethnic, diverse context. And, personal achievement in and after formal schooling will depend upon successful collaboration with others.

Never before has closing the gap between education and modernity been so crucial. The capacity of society to tolerate a persistent underclass is eroding and is no longer coherent, tenable, or sustainable. Being late to modernity is not an option.

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