Education for the 21st Century

After a brief hiatus, I’m back to the Economy 4.0 series. It’s a truism that building our human capital — educating and training our citizenry — is the single most significant challenge that Virginia faces in the early 21st century. In the latest column, I take it for granted that our efforts to date have been largely unsuccessful. Expensive… very, very expensive… But not terribly effective. Compared to national norms, the educational achievement of Virginia’s students has barely budged; compared to international norms, the achievement of American students is slipping.

As I’ve argued before (See “The Tofflers on Education“), American educational institutions evolved to meet the requirements of the agricultural and industrial eras of development. Unfortunately, we have reached a stage of such institutional ossification — a gridlock of unyielding special interests — that our educational institutions are incapable of evolving to meet the demands of the knowledge era.

One reason we cannot bust this institutional gridlock, I believe, is the inability to imagine what a knowledge-era educational system might look like. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field, but I do have some ideas — or seeds of ideas — of how a post-industrial education system might change. In this week’s column, “Education for the 21st Century,” I suggest that we’ll eventually see the following:

  • The end of age segregation in schools. No more age cohorts marching in lockstep through 12 distinct grades. Each child will progress at his or her own pace.
  • The end of nine-month school years. Why should children waste three months out of the year? To help their parents with the harvest? The time off is mostly wasted. Children need to spend more time learning.
  • The end of “schools” as distinct buildings or campuses were education takes place. Home schools (or collaborations of home schoolers) and distance learning will show the way.
  • The rise of free-lance teachers and professors. Teachers and professors valued for their ability to teach (as opposed to publish) will find the freedom to connect directly with parents and students without the intermediation of schools and colleges.
  • Just-in-time education. The divisions between “school years” and “work years” will blur, as people learn what they need to learn, when they need to learn it and apply it. Instead of acquiring high school degrees and college degrees, which are increasingly meaningless credentials, people will acquire the competencies, skills and knowledge they need to perform on the job or pursue their self fulfillment.

Unless the process is blocked by the educational-industrial complex, the logic of evolving technology and the demands of the marketplace make these changes more or less inevitable. The real question is whether we ultimately build an educational system for the 21st century in the 21st century, or whether the process of institutional change is so slow that we won’t get there until the 22nd century… if then.

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8 responses to “Education for the 21st Century”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    “American educational institutions evolved to meet the requirements of the agricultural and industrial eras of development.”

    Yes, this is true. I would only add that, IMO, the “system” has mostly evolved into one that has a primary goal of getting kids into college which sadly comes down to a few “tests” taken at the end of high school. If you bomb them you very well may start to question what it is you have really been doing the past 13 years.

    You really can’t get a well paying job anymore with just a high school diploma. With the exception of a few degrees you may very well have trouble getting a well paying job with just an undergraduate degree.

    The WHOLE system needs to be evaluated from top to bottom (elementary, middle, high school, college, and beyond).

  2. Danny L. Newton Avatar
    Danny L. Newton

    The Mexicans seem to be doing alright with only a seventh grade education. Technology is also reducing the need for technically trained workers.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    “The end of “schools” as distinct buildings or campuses were education takes place…….
    The rise of free-lance teachers and professors.”

    Yep. Free market education and vouchers will bbe the best thing that happened to education in a thousand years. Too bad it will take a thousand years to get there.

    “You really can’t get a well paying job anymore with just a high school diploma.”

    Maybe not, but I know quite a few people with a high school education and their own business. Naturally, you never hear them snarling about short term profits.

    “The WHOLE system needs to be evaluated from top to bottom” it took me until maybe seventh grade to figure that out. By the time I finished high school, (where my father was a teacher) I was convinced.

    The skills USA website has a thing cllaed Workplace Readiness Certification. “It requires successful completion of a written exam prepared with NOCTI (National Occupational Competency Testing Institute) and NASDCTEc, the consortium of state directors of Career and Technical Education.”

    Oh Goody.

    Reminds me of the story of the fellow who had a catamaran built in South Africa. When he wwnt to pick it up, it wasn’t ready, and while the yard hurried to finish the boat, his visa expired. Among other things, Immigration wanted him to show that he was competent to sail the boat back to America.

    Apparently his Coast Guard 100 ton license wasn’t good enough. He eventually convinced the official that there were NO papers he would consider sufficient, so he let him go (with a substantial fine).

    At sea, the boat developed fairly serious problems, but, of course, with no visa he couldn’t go back for warranty work.

    So much for papers.


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    I’m with Ray on the timing. The education establishment owns virtually every Democrat and a vast number of Republicans. It’s all about jobs.


  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m in agreement with this also.

    I call them the Education Establishment and I’ve been reminded by those who teach that sometimes teachers are unwilling minions … to higher ups though they admit that advocating for higher salaries seems to be their single-minded goal at times.

    I see the Educational Establishment as I do certain other government owned/operated enterprises of which they resent “outside interference” with the way they want to do businesses…

    almost as if.. taxpayers and “customers” are merely things like doorknobs and plumbing… as opposed to landlords…

    but I think you have to admit that in the game of politics and education that a satisfied parent multiplied hundreds of times is going to trump a grumpy critic – every time.

    You gotta face it. You’re a parent. Your kid is getting thousands of dollars worth of “free” benefits of which you – as parent – are paying through your property taxes 1/5 or less of that total cost..

    so.. yes.. it’s a great deal .. your kid gets .. all those neat advanced placement courses, extra-curricula activities, and one heck of a college-entrance-resume- building .. benefit…

    so.. yeah… those parents have got you guys by the financial shorthairs because the Education Establishment knows exactly which side of the bread their butter is on .. AND .. how to mobilize them at budget time….

    so what’s new?

    you got a bunch of folks getting one heck of a subsidy and could care less about cost effectiveness because it’s NOT coming out of their pockets – but yours.

    got a problem with that?

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Assume that health care reform involves elimination of the tax free status of employer-provided health insurance, with the substitute of a tax credit that applies to a specified amount regardless of where insurance is provided. If that model makes sense for health care (which I assume for purposes of this discussion), shouldn’t the same apply to education?

    Subject to a similar tax credit, should the value of public school education be taxable income to parents? If the value of taxpayer-provided income becomes partly taxable to parents, shouldn’t they have the right to take the funds to any accredited school that they like?

    I’m not arguing against public schools. Both of my kids attend Fairfax County Public Schools. I suspect that, if we had the choice where to spend the money, we’d make the same choice. But what would be different with choice is where FCPS spent its money. School choice would put a lot more money in classrooms and not in administrators. I also believe that more money would flow from special programs to the education of the average student.

    But as I posted earlier, it’s all about jobs and campaign contributions.


  7. Jim Bacon Avatar

    The following comments come from Don Crawford, which he originally communicated by e-mail and I post here with his permission:

    When I taught sales and marketing courses at ODU and JMU, the first night I would ask the students, who were juniors and seniors, what they planned to do after graduation. About 10% of the class had definite answers like “go to law school” or work for a specific company. Most of the others said things like get a good job. To which I would ask: “doing what?” Most of the time a blank stare or shoulder shrug was the answer.

    I was emphatic with my daughter that she have a plan for how she would make the college investment in her time and my money pay off. She graduated and went into teaching in Michigan. Five years later, burned out and frustrated by the antiquated system you so aptly describe in today’s Rebellion, she quit. Now she tells me that the same school she was teaching in two years ago has let go 12 teachers while the student population has stayed close to the same size. In Michigan each school regardless of where it’s located gets the same amount per student regardless of location. This is supposed to equal out education between “wealthy” and “poor” neighborhoods. What a joke.

    I’m waiting to hear one of the Presidential candidates announce they will abolish the Federal Department of Education, another waste of tax payer money on a bureaucracy which does little educating. And get rid of the education departments at the state level, too. We have local school boards. Let them raise the money to educate our children. Let them work with the business community to provide basic and specialized education for the needs of the current and future employers in the community and beyond.

    Josiah Bunting wrote “An Education for Our Time,” which presents a novel approach to education. Like most models it won’t fit all students but it is thought provoking. It approaches your concept of year round school, learning without class rooms, and moving at the student’s own pace. It’s a good read if you haven’t already.

    I’ve moved from the parent to the grand parent phase of life so I don’t have kids in the public schools. But, hey, I’m depending on the younger generations to “fund” my retirement either through social security (if it still exists in 10 years) and through their hard work in companies where I’m invested to make those investments pay well. So I do have a vested interest in their education.

    The education bureaucracy is like a giant ship, once in motion it’s hard to steer and hard to stop. One well-placed torpedo will do it. Keep firing those shots and hopefully one will hit the critical spot.

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