The End Of Public Education…?

Source: Don Peppers | LinkedIn

Is The End Near for Public Education...?Is The End Near for Public Education…?

“It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

– Albert Shanker


For more than 30 years prior to his death in 1997, Albert Shanker was a pivotal force in the teachers’ unions, serving as President of both the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. But as hard as he fought for teachers’ rights, he also felt the public education system in the U.S. was sadly inadequate.

And with good reason. State-sponsored public education in almost every country in the world is unsatisfactory and inept, a scandal we’ve tolerated far too long.

The origin of comprehensive, state-sponsored schooling in the industrial era can be traced to 19th Century Prussia. In the early 1800’s Prussian military rulers implemented a national schooling program to ensure a supply of disciplined young soldiers capable of resisting any future Napoleonic-style invasion of their country. Under the guise of teaching young boys how to read and do numbers, Prussian schools grouped students by age, rather than by knowledge or ability, sat them at rows of desks facing a teacher, rather than arranging them in discussion circles, and rang a bell regularly, so as to discipline their day while they studied a variety of subjects.

The British adapted the Prussian model when they needed to create their own cadre of professionals to administer their far-flung empire. And Horace Mann, one of the early proponents of public schooling in America, returned from an 1843 visit to Prussia full of ideas for implementing the same kind of system in the U.S.

Teaching “reading, writing and ’rithmatic” was not the main purpose for these early school systems, however, because the vast majority of adults in Prussia, Britain, and the young United States were already literate, even before public schooling was instituted. The printing press had unleashed a tidal wave of demand for literacy, and most people either learned on their own, or were taught by a combination of parents and non-public, for-profit schools. Instead, one of the primary objectives of the public school system in most countries was to raise a disciplined work force and maintain the social order.

In Matt Ridley’s ambitious book The Evolution of Everything, he dedicates a full chapter to a sweeping story of how people educate themselves, when left to their own devices. If you look at how schools develop “in the wild” today, outside of government programs, you’ll be amazed at the kind of systems that evolve on their own – simply because parents want to educate their children, and they’re willing to spend money to do so, especially when they see that a state-sponsored system is dysfunctional.

And why not? After all, no one thinks a government monopoly is necessary to ensure an adequate supply of fitness centers, or hotels, or grocery stores, right? But just like hotels and groceries, non-government schools maintain their quality because they compete with each other; state schools do not.

Ridley cites the work of James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, who documented the evolution of low-cost private schools in city slums and remote villages around the world. In the cramped and sewage-infested slums of the old city of Hyderabad, India, for instance, there is an association of five hundred private schools catering to the poor. A school might have unglazed windows and stained walls, but for the equivalent of $2 a day or less, the children of rickshaw-pullers and day laborers get what amounts to a first-rate education. In Ghana, one highly popular teacher has built a school with four branches teaching some 3,400 children a year. Scholarships are provided for those who can’t afford even the modest tuition fee of about $50 per term. In Somaliland, Tooley found that in a city with no water supply, paved roads or street lights there were twice as many private schools as state schools.

In virtually every region, all over the world, low-cost private schools out-deliver state schools. They have consistently lower costs and they generate consistently better results than public schools, Tooley found, simply because parents vote with their feet.

Now add technology to the equation and you have a formula for rapidly evolving, non-state-controlled education, not just in the developed world but in the developing world as well.

You may have already seen Sugata Mitra’s prize-winning 2013 TED talk about how poor kids in an Indian slum were able to teach themselves English, along with advanced concepts in biology, chemistry and mathematics, simply by following their own curiosity and helping each other with the use of a single personal computer and access to the internet. But if you haven’t yet watched this, you are missing out on what may be one of the most important insights in the last couple of centuries into how the most effective kind of education actually happens.

Mitra’s research suggests that the schooling system itself may soon become obsolete, replaced by what he calls the self-organized learning environment, or “SOLE.” His plan is to have three to five children share a computer with internet access, then propel their learning simply by giving them questions to answer on their own, like figuring out puzzles. Can trees think? Why do we dream? How does an iPad know where it is? Why do humans breathe, and what happens to the air we breathe?

The galloping pace of technology requires us to upgrade our capability to learn. But unfortunately the public schools, saddled with bureaucracy and undisciplined by any real feedback from customers (i.e. students) will simply not be up to this task. No top-down, take-it-or-leave-it process ever could be.

When the end finally does come for public education it’s unlikely to be by government action. Instead, at some point in the next two or three decades public schools will simply find themselves completely outdated by technology, to the point that they will stand alone and unused, rendered as obsolete as public phone booths, or secretarial pools.

Whatever replaces the current system will be an emergent, evolutionary phenomenon, demanded by individual consumers (i.e., students and their parents), and augmented by technology. We can only hope it emerges sooner rather than later.

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