by Michael Q. McShane
Parents, educators, and citizens have to come to grips with a harsh realization: There is no one best way to educate children. For decades now, reformers on both sides of the Atlantic have looked for a silver bullet, that one policy that if implemented correctly would magically work for all children, everywhere, and right away. Let’s raise standards. Let’s change how we evaluate teachers. Let’s hand every child a tablet.
Education has increasingly fallen into the soft hands of technocrats. Rather than wrestle with the difficult questions about what we want from our education system and what we should do to get there, they have sold politicians on the belief that this or that new curricular framework or this or that revamping of teacher evaluation will be sufficient to prepare all students for successful lives.
This is a problem. If we do not have a serious discussion about the aims of our education system, we will have no idea if the changes that we are making are working. There is no amount of handwaving that can get away from this.
So, in the spirit of planting a flag for a new vision for education in the 21st Century, I’d like to offer two goals for our education systems and three ways to get there.
The first goal should be to promote a robust, pluralistic vision of society. Legal scholar John Inazu refers to “confident pluralism” in his book of the same name as a system that “allows genuine difference to coexist without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions” and finds “a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us.”
One measure of confident pluralism is the comfort that people have with hearing views with which they disagree. On that score, Western Europe is home to some troubling trends. According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, only 57 percent of Britons, 54 percent of Spaniards, 53 percent of Frenchmen, 40 percent of Poles, 38 percent of Germans, and 29 percent of Italians believe that “people should be able to make statements that are offensive to your religion or beliefs publicly.” Relatedly, only 57 percent of Spaniards, 54 percent of Britons, 51 percent of Frenchmen, 41 percent of Poles, 32 percent of Italians, and 27 percent of Germans believe that “People should be able to make statements that are offensive to minority groups publicly.” That evinces neither confidence, nor pluralism.
The United States tends to fare better, with 77 percent agreeing with first statement and 67 percent agreeing with the second, but younger Americans are substantially more likely to advocate for curtailing the free speech of people with whom they disagree.
Unfortunately, particularly in the United States, pluralism in education is not valued. Rather than allowing schools that have alternative visions of the good, the true, and the beautiful to exist on equal footing to traditional public schools, they are prevented from accessing public dollars. As a result, communities must fight for control over the one local school district, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a never-ending battle for ideological supremacy.
But it is also true that there are homogenizing tendencies at work in other systems as well. By requiring all schools to follow a uniform national curriculum and teachers to be trained, licensed, compensated, and evaluated in standardized ways leads to standardized outcomes. It is much harder to have a pluralistic society when we don’t allow for pluralism in our education systems.
A second goal should be to empower entrepreneurial educators to meet the needs of the children in their schools and classrooms.
Walking hand in hand with pluralism is the freedom for educators to create schools that embody their values and their beliefs in how children should be educated. One such example would be the uber-progressive Educate Together movement in the Republic of Ireland that now boasts more than 80 primary and 9 secondary schools. In the United States, the Acton Academies allow for a kind of hybrid homeschooling, where children work through online models at home for two to three days per week and then attend school for two to three days per week to try and get the most out of both personalized and communal learning. These organizations have the opportunity to be both entrepreneurial, creating new school models , and confidently pluralistic, setting their own expectations and reflecting their own values within the broader education system.
Educational entrepreneurship does not have to solely be the province of new school models. Increasingly, we are seeing entrepreneurial efforts in education that are unmoored from the classroom itself. Online tutoring platforms, language learning software, coding modules that can be completed anywhere at any time, and much more are disentangling learning from schooling. An education system that values entrepreneurship would find ways to integrate these potential learning experiences into the formal schooling that children receive. That involves funding flexibility, regulatory flexibility, and open-mindedness to non-traditional educational models.
So what steps can educators and policymakers take to create such a system? I like to offer three.
First, clear away the underbrush that thwarts unique schooling models and entrepreneurial educators. I am not going to tell every nation to abandon its national curriculum or throw out the exams that it uses to license teachers, though there are probably cases where that is appropriate. What I will advocate is a through regulatory review wherein unnecessary hurdles to innovation and diversity are identified and jettisoned. Can students receive credit for learning experiences outside of the four walls of their school? Can time be created in the day for students to pursue projects or use third-party platforms to augment their education? Can educators start their own schools to reflect unique pedagogical or philosophical approaches? Is state support available for children who choose non-traditional education modalities?
Do we still need requirements for a certain number of days or hours in a classroom to denote that a child has passed a particular class? In an age of competency-based education that allows students to progress at their own pace, probably not. Are there pathways for individuals who might have invaluable technical knowledge to teach students where appropriate? Could a school pursue a radically different instructional model and still have students that are able to pass all of the necessary exams to matriculate to university? The answers to these seemingly prosaic questions will determine the degree to which pluralism and entrepreneurship will be part of the school system.
Second, utilize a funneling approach to investment in entrepreneurial educational ventures. Entrepreneurial ventures are, almost axiomatically, unpredictable. Many do not work out. Matt Candler of the New Orleans-based 4.0 Schools incubator likens his approach to identifying and supporting new ventures to a funnel. He starts by making many very small investments, like purchasing food and drink for a meetup of potential entrepreneurs. He then whittles down the best ideas from that meet-up and invites them to workshops and seminars to hone and refine their ideas. The best ideas from those workshops and seminars get even more support and on and on down through a winnowing process that eventually creates workable solutions.
Generally speaking, existing philanthropic and government investments in education don’t work this way. Those bodies want to wait until and idea is “proven” and then they will lavish it with huge amounts of money. This inhibits the growth of potential solutions and leads to the support of efforts that often work in specific environments but peter out at scale. A more iterative and formative investment process would have a better chance at success.
Third, use data prudently. Instruments like standardized tests or national exams can yield useful information about how schools are performing. Routinely, when league tables of school performance are released, some schools do so poorly at imparting what minimal elements of education that we deem necessary that they shock the conscience. But the vast majority of schools end up in the messy middle. What should we do about them? I don’t know, and most policymakers at the national level don’t either. Improving those schools must be tackled at the ground level, with educators and policymakers closest to children, families, and the community at the helm. Policymakers at higher levels of government can help set the conditions for their success (providing the necessary funding, disseminating research and best practices, offering technical support), but it is ultimately up to the folks in the building to deliver. They should use data to improve their efforts, not live or die by it.
It was the economist Fredrich Hayek who argued in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that if we wanted to improve the world, we should act as gardeners and not craftsmen. None of these recommendations is a one-size-fits-all solution for the issues facing contemporary school systems. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. These policies can help till and fertilize the soil of education, creating the conditions by which talented and entrepreneurial school leaders can create the schools where teachers love to teach and students love to