A Nationwide Referendum on Public Education

by Charles Sosnik

by Charles Sosnik

Americans are voting in a nationwide referendum on public education. But it’s not on any ballot. And curiously, it hasn’t made the national news media. It’s the number of families that are leaving traditional public education for homeschooling, unschooling, private schools, charters and even no schooling at all.

One in four school-aged children currently do not attend a traditional public school. Even with all the positive changes being made by the dedicated men and women working in schools across our nation, more than 25 percent of American families are just saying no. And that percentage is increasing. Is it possible that the public no longer wants public education?

The answer is a resounding “Maybe.” In its present form, school is outdated and prepares children for the world of their parents, not the world in which they’ll enter. But perhaps it’s not too late to remake the institution of education.

If so, the first thing we need to do is remove the word institution from our thinking. Institutionalizing children to be cookie-cutter models of learning is antithetical to a world that rewards self-directed thinking and entrepreneurialism. The second thing we should do is rethink the authoritarian nature of school. Given a choice between my way or the highway, more and more families are choosing the highway. Schools now need to be a service business – with the student as customer. The function of a publicly funded school is to make sure every student can learn. We are only graduating 80 percent of our learners. And most high school graduates are not proficient in math or reading.

In the United States, four million children are counted as homeschooled or unschooled, 3.2 million are enrolled in charters and 5.7 million are in private schools. And those numbers may not tell the whole story. According to data from the World Education Forum USA, there are actually 6 million children in the U.S. not enrolled in public or private schools. Even if this data includes all homeschoolers and unschoolers, it still brings the number of children not in traditional public schools to 14.9 million. That’s more than a quarter of all school-aged children. Some districts have experienced as much as 30 percent enrollment loss, with rural districts losing even more students than urban ones. As a result, consumers are now spending more on learning materials than schools are. Last year, U.S. schools spent $10.5 billion on digital curriculum, while straight-to-consumer sales were $18 billion, a 20 percent increase over the previous year.

In her book The Consumerization of Learning, author Leilani Cauthen points out that education is becoming “consumerized.” Like every other industry, education consumers now expect an experience and consumer-like choice online. Today’s learners are smart. They have the sum of the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. We can’t expect them to live in a world of amazing video games and professional media at home and then step into an archaic world of 40-student classrooms. The smart kids are dropping out from sheer boredom. Teachers too. In South Carolina last year, 25 percent of new teachers left after their first year. Other states are experiencing similar retention challenges.

Cauthen’s organization, the Learning Counsel, is a research institute and news media hub that provides information and assistance to districts around the shift to digital curriculum. In addition to holding 30 or more events around the U.S. each year, her group writes whitepapers and special reports about the transformation of education. Their latest report, Designed for Digital, introduces a model that Cauthen says “reverse-engineers schools to be student-centric and digital first.” The model proposes to reinvent the teachers’ role so that what teachers do best, connecting with children and diagnosing problems with learning, is cast alongside a sophisticated software model that executes personal pathways. Teachers are then leveraged for what they can do that machines cannot.  

According to Cauthen, “This is a model that also transforms the physical environment of schools to be more flexible. It untangles the roles of teachers so that their humanity shines through as their best and most used asset, rather than getting bogged down with deciding what to teach, doing data entry, analytics, project staging and more.  We’re proposing some teachers may even get to work at home in their pajamas sometimes, just like many other industries.”

Cauthen says the difficulty with such a huge paradigm shift lies in understanding what software can actually do for learning through high-end navigation and animation, algorithmic inference, repetitive questioning, automatic alerts and analytics to teachers. These are things that were missing in the early stages of online learning.  According to Cauthen, “The answer isn’t one silver-bullet, but a mosaic of the current commercial offerings. One App for reading, another for math, yet others for science that also interact with robots and hands-on experiments, different ones for different ages, all in a landscape of some 7,000 vendors.”

We all believe we know what school should look like based on our own school experience.  That is as true for school policy-makers and government officials as it is for you and me. It makes it difficult to understand that we don’t need a better version of school anymore, but a more modern version of education. When Henry Ford introduced the automobile, he said, “If I’d left it up to the people, they’d just want faster, bigger horses.” Ford was saying people don’t know what they don’t know.  

Today, we need visionaries like Cauthen, as well as big thinkers from other industries. And we need to be asking tough questions. This isn’t about politics. We need to help our schools transition into a more modern approach that can meet the needs of learners now and in the future. It doesn’t make sense to continue as is. But it also doesn’t make sense to scrap our present system. The answer lies in the middle; perhaps the “reverse-engineering” Cauthen talks about. But tough decisions need to be made.

If we don’t realize this soon, all our students may be gone, and we’ll be the last ones at the party. Like King Louis, we may find “The people are revolting.” But then, the people probably thought the same thing about the king.

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