about misreading your audience!
this month, I participated in a panel discussion at
a conference of workforce services directors from
across the Virginia Community College System. The
people in the audience seemed like nice,
comfortable, middle-aged folks -- co-opted, I
imagined, by Virginia's massive educational
bureaucracy and hardly the type to rock the boat.
Insofar as they thought about educational reform, I
reflect the sincere but cautious sentiments their
bosses express in op-ed pieces seen in Virginia's
sum, the workforce services directors seemed just
like the type of people I like to set squirming in
their seats. So, I gave 'em a dose of the ol'
Rebellion. The educational system in Virginia, and
the rest of the United States, is a relic of the
industrial era, I said. The apparatus is outmoded
and poorly adapted to the knowledge economy, I
argued. What we need to do, I told them, is reinvent
the entire system from top to bottom.
myself for disbelief, even defensive hostility...
Instead, I got the biggest applause line of the
the program, several workforce services people
came up to chat. As I found much to my surprise,
many professionals in the front lines of Virginia's
educational system think much the same way that I
do. We just don't hear them because they aren't the
ones articulating public policy goals.
it's time we paid attention. Workforce development
is one of the greatest challenges that Virginia
faces in a globally competitive economy. Businesses
rely upon the productivity, knowledge, creativity
and the problem- solving abilities of their employees
to retain their competitive edge. Once upon a time, the U.S.
had the best educated workforce in the world. That
advantage is fast eroding. As Virginia evolves
towards a 4.0 economic development strategy
organized around the development, recruitment and
retention of human capital, we must scrutinize the
institutions entrusted with the task of educating our citizens,
preparing them to participate in a civil society and equipping them to contribute to
dominant educational institutions -- K-12 schools
and four-year colleges -- originated decades ago to
churn out the workers and managers required to run
an industrial economy. No longer are they suited to
a fast-moving knowledge economy in which knowledge
and skills are rapidly outdated and must be
continually upgraded. Educational reformers speak
about the need for "lifelong learning,"
but the mechanisms to provide that learning have
yet to materialize.
educational reforms we've seen to date are no more likely to improve
educational performance than squirting a garden hose
will dampen a California wildfire. Virginia's
Standards of Quality (the SOQs), which measure and
mandate staffing levels and other inputs into public
schools, are soaking up prodigious amounts of money
with little to show for them. The Standards of
Learning (SOLs), which measure test scores, have
generated only modest gains at the cost of endless
controversy. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine thinks the answer
is extending school to pre-K day care, ignoring
the fact that the gaps in educational performance
between American children and those of other
countries is narrowest when they start Kindergarten
and widens the longer they stay in school!
once thought charter schools and vouchers were the
solution. No longer. Private schools may provide an
escape for a privileged few from the failures of
public schools, but they are not a society-wide
answer. Private-school tuitions generally run twice the
average cost of public schools. The Commonwealth
of Virginia cannot possibly afford to double
educational spending over current levels. And even
if it could, the private school model cries out for
an overhaul almost as much as the public school
about it: We segregate children by age cohort, then
we march the cohorts through a rigid curriculum in
which every child is expected to master the same
body of knowledge and achieve the same thinking
skills as every other child -- regardless of the
fact that children do not develop their cognitive
capabilities in chronological lockstep. My
five-year-old nephew, taught by his mother to read
at a third-grade level before entering kindergarten,
finds himself bored by a curriculum in which his
peers are still mastering their A, B, C's. What a
waste. He ought to be progressing to fourth-grade
reading, which is no more possible in a private
school than a public one.
about it: We organize school in school
"years," in which children spend three
months of intellectual idleness during the summer,
forgetting half of what they learned the year
before. Why do we still do this? So children can
help their parents bring in the harvest? So Kings
Dominion and Busch Gardens don't have to hire as
many H2-B visa kids from Poland and Romania? So
society can provide summer work opportunities for
day-care providers and camp counselors?
about it: We make children spend endless hours
sitting at attention in classrooms -- a task that
little boys especially are manifestly ill equipped
to do. Then, when the squirmies disrupt class with
their talking and spitballs, we label them with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity
Disorder -- a phenomenon virtually unknown two
generations ago -- and drug them with Ritalin. Well,
that's what happens in private schools. In public
schools, kids just fail and repeat grades until they
drop out -- unless they're given social promotions,
in which case they still fail until they drop out.
about it: Virginia's elite public universities are
incredibly selective about who they admit. Only a
small fraction of applicants are offered a slot. But
what do college administrators do to ensure that the
best and brightest of Virginia's youth take full
advantage of their education? Virtually nothing.
Offered unlimited freedom with minimal supervision,
many students treat their college years as a
never forget taking a course in West Indian history
during my fourth year at The University. The class,
taught by Barry Gaspar, a West Indian professor, was
a fascinating seminar on the
interaction of race, culture, the sugar trade, plantation slavery and
capitalism. There were two frat boys who didn't
take the class seriously, attended only a few
classes -- usually hung over -- and miserably flunked their final exam. Dr.
Gaspar gave them F's, which they richly deserved.
But the frat boys pleaded for mercy: If they received F's,
they wouldn't graduate. Instead of flunking their
miserable, privileged white asses, the kind-hearted
Gaspar gave them D's -- good enough to collect their
I always wondered,
why such derelicts should take up scarce space at
U.Va. How many kids were
rejected from U.Va. who would have made so much more
of the opportunity to learn? There seemed to be no
sense in a college experience where kids went to
party for four years rather than study.
than throw more money at an educational model that
is fundamentally mal-adapted to the demands of the
21st century, we need to radically restructure the way we
educate both children and adults in Virginia.
not an educational theorist, so I can't tell you
what the educational system of the Knowledge Economy
will look like, much less how we'll transition to it
from the dysfunctional morass that we have now. But I
suspect it will entail some of the following:
end of age cohorts parading through 12 distinct
grades. Children will be required to master
specified fields of knowledge. When they master one
level, they will move to the next. Individuals will progress
according to their individual abilities and
aptitudes, some faster in some subjects, some
slower. Grades comprised of students all the same
age will become a relic of the past. Classes will be
comprised of students, regardless of age, at roughly
the same level of academic mastery of the subject
matter. Brighter students might meet their high
school requirements by age 16 or 17. Slower students
will take longer.
end of nine-month school years. There is
absolutely no reason that children should call a
halt to learning for one quarter of the calendar
year. That idea might have made sense 200 years ago
when the corpus of knowledge was more limited and
children were needed in the fields. There is no
justification for such cognitive time-off today when
there is so much to learn and so many skills to
acquire in order to compete in the global economy.
end of "schools." The obsolescence of
chronological grades and nine-month school years
suggests that there may be a limited future for
focusing all educational activities in a single
geographical location known as a "school."
The future can be glimpsed in two-plus-two programs
in which students supplement their high school
classes with community college work; in home schooling, which
is increasingly a misnomer as parents engage in
collaborative schooling; and in long-distance
learning, in which teachers interact with
students over teleconference-enabled PCs.
rise of free-lance teachers and professors. The
Internet can connect teachers and students without
regard to physical location. Not only will students
break free of geographic limitations, so will
teachers, professors and other instructors of
defined fields of study. As
educational free agents, the best teachers will enroll their own
classes: teaching over the Internet perhaps, or in
their own homes, or in public spaces like
the ancient Greek athenaeum.
We can get a
the future from companies like The
Teaching Company, which sells great academic lectures on
DVDs. For $99.95, you can buy a set of DVDs
containing 36 lectures by Kenneth Harl, Tulane
University, on the topic of the Peloponnesian War.
Other featured courses include, "Understanding
the Brain," "Zero to Infinity: A History
of Numbers," and "How to Listen to And
Understand Great Music."
the rate of knowledge obsolescence, people will get
serious about life-long learning. At the same time,
people will acknowledge that much of what
students learn in college today is utterly wasted. They
learn languages, read books and master bodies of
knowledge which they will never apply for the rest of their lives. (I, for one, have
a sublimely useless degree: a Master's degree in
the future, people will learn the competencies they
need, either to succeed in the marketplace or to
pursue personal fulfillment. The border between
school and non-school will blur. Those who seek to
improve themselves will always be learning
something. But time and money are scarce, so they
won't necessarily master knowledge in three
credit-hour chunks and 60 credit-hour degrees.
People will learn what we need to know, when they
need to know it.
will still be a role for government in this vision
of the educational future. Some entity will have to
define minimum levels of competency for all
citizens, and some entity will have to ensure that
all citizens have the means to obtain an appropriate
education regardless of their family circumstance.
But government does not have to be -- indeed, should
not be -- in the business
of delivering educational services.
needs more educational freedom, more liberty, more
creativity in teaching methods, more technology, and
more innovation in organizational models. We need more entrepreneurs and
fewer bureaucrats running our educational system. We
need more freedom for students to choose what, when
and how they learn, and less top-town diktat by
politicians and bureaucrats. In sum, we need to free the
educational sector to evolve in radical new
directions and the wisdom to see which ones work
December 27, 2007