We Need a More Dynamic Education System

Adam Peshek | February 14, 2023

(RealClearEducation) — According to a new report, there’s a significant disconnect between what parents want from education, what they think other parents want, and what the system actually provides. Much of the coverage of the report has focused on reforming schools to reflect the goals of most parents. I disagree with that approach. The goal should be to create a more dynamic education system that frees educators and families to create schools that meet ever-changing, unique needs. 

The Purpose of Education Index from Populace, a Massachusetts-based think tank, is a unique survey that identifies how parents really feel about what is most important for education. One of the takeaways is that parents want a different approach to education, but they think that their views are in the minority. For instance, the average parent ranks getting into college at the end of K-12 as the 47th most important goal. But they believe that other parents rank it as the third most important goal. 

As the report’s press release notes, parents want to “rethink American education in favor of personalized curricula, practical skills, and subject mastery and away from standardized testing, college prep, and a one-size fits all model.”

I agree. The 100-year focus on creating a standardized path for all, prioritizing cramming for tests, and using education to rank and sort students has failed. It does not recognize the world we live in today, let alone the world students will inhabit: a world where a chatbot can ace a Wharton MBA exam

Having said that, here are five considerations to guide our thinking going forward:

1) Don’t rush to reshape schools from the top.This has been the story of government intervention in education for the last century. Increased government intervention into classroom practices is what got us into this mess.

2) People want options and customization, not a better version of the same. As the report notes, “one-size-fits-all approaches to K-12 education turn off the vast majority of Americans.” Take a hot topic right now like virtual learning. Polls show that most parents don’t think it’s the best option for their kids. Yet they also think that those options should exist for others, and they would recommend virtual learning to students interested in subjects not taught in their local school. Yes, people have their preferences, but they also want options. What does not make sense for them today may become important to them in the future. 

3) No school can be good at everything. A single school cannot be Montessori, classical, STEM-focused, direct instruction, and self-directed all at once. The goal should be an educational landscape where they can all coexist.

With that goal comes tradeoffs. Twenty hours dedicated to helping kids learn personal finance or how to prepare a meal (the top selected goal) is 20 hours that cannot be dedicated to something else. These decisions should not be decided by special interests coaxing lawmakers to add more and more requirements.

4) Instead, let educators, parents, and students come up with education options that work for them. The problem of unaligned educational priorities is not for elites to fix. The problem is for those closest to the problem to fix. Innovation doesn’t come from state capitals. This is a radical insight only in the field of education.

5) We need more local experimentation and a diversity of educational approaches. But the chief values in education today are sameness (“comparability”), zero risk tolerance, and deferring decision-making to “experts” far away from communities. That’s a recipe for the status quo.

Yet, the survey finds that 71% of Americans believe that “more things about the educational system should change than stay the same,” with 21% believing “nearly everything should change.”

The pandemic transformed parents’ views of education. They no longer want to be passive recipients of what is given to them. They want a say in how, what, and where their kids are educated. This is a good thing, and advocates should harness these energies for change.

The future is being created now. The pandemic sparked innovation not seen in decades. Parents and educators created new micro-schools, pods, cooperatives, and many other unconventional, small-by-design approaches to education. They can work in any community and can be as effective in rural area as in urban communities. All you need is an educator, some students, and a place to meet. You don’t need a million-dollar budget, a staff of 10, or a 5,000-square-foot commercial building before you can start educating kids. You can start small, iterate, and grow (or fail) at a more modest scale. 

I’m hopeful for states like Arizona, West Virginia, and Iowa that are providing education funds directly to families via education savings accounts. Imagine the possibilities in a world where all  families had access to the roughly $15,000 spent on a child’s education each year, and educators were freed to create unique schools that families opted into.

This isn’t hypothetical – it’s happening around the country. A system of education is being created that enables families and educators to create new and better approaches to education that can evolve to meet future needs.

Adam Peshek is a senior fellow at Stand Together Trust. This article was first published by RealClearEducation.