Can Traditional Public Schools Survive?

In 1852 Massachusetts became the first state in America to require compulsory public schooling, and most American states followed suit by the end of the 19th century, although some U.S. states were still only getting around to adopting this idea well into the 20th century.  

Over the past century or so of mandating school attendance—with more and more modifications to accommodate religious objections, private school enrollments, and the increasing popularity of home schooling—local, taxpayer supported public schools have come to be seen as a permanent fixture that signals our commitment to community achievement, economic progress, and egalitarian ideals.  To abandon public education’s mission—whatever that might be presumed to be at any particular moment—has been an idea unworthy of serious discussion outside of what are perceived to be the most socially and politically retrograde circles of our society.

However, perhaps we need to begin to ask whether public schools can actually continue to exist in their present form—and whether this is even desirable.

Few people will be found who advocate for abject ignorance.  The abilities to read, write, and use mathematical concepts are the foundational skills of the 21st century workplace.  There are few job opportunities for those who are illiterate and lack basic skills anymore, and even traditional skilled trade and manufacturing employment requires ongoing training in order to stay current with ever changing methods, materials, and safety standards.  New types of jobs requiring advanced technology skills are being created with breathtaking speed as the nature of work increasingly conforms to robotic and semi-robotic models now made possible by incredible advances in computing and software design.

However, suggestions that public schools enhance their utility by more closely aligning themselves with the needs of local businesses inevitably produce howls of dismay from those who see any such effort as a plot by the private sector to co-opt the classroom and brainwash children—and there are very good reasons to question whether this idea is either feasible or practicable.  

Public schools, which are built around a civil service model of operation that privileges secure employment for teachers and administrators over the alacrity necessary to continually and quickly reinvent curriculum and instruction in order to conform to marketplace necessities, are likely not up to the challenges they face today as employers continue to complain of the difficulties they have finding qualified employees.  

During the many years they will typically need to create, evaluate, and approve curriculum in order to meet the identified needs of just one business or industry, rapid manufacturing improvements and technology changes may render obsolete all that has been laboriously—and expensively—planned.  There might not even be any jobs of that type left to fill as shifts in service and production change the employment prospects in that sector of our fluid, dynamic, and globalized marketplace.  Therefore, presuming that public schools can be an adaptable engine of economic development and individual improvement might have inherent limitations that will become more and more obvious as business cycles continue to accelerate—and public schools are still stuck in their pokey bureaucratic mindsets.

The traditional work of teaching basic skills that can serve as a foundation for life and career success still seems a ready and obvious mission for public schools, but it is one that, as is already well known, they often do very poorly.  A 2018 report from ACT on the tested college readiness of high school graduates found that only 38% were proficient in at least 3 of the 4 core competencies used to determine whether a high school student is prepared for success in higher education.  Even worse, a staggering 35% met none—not a single one—of the core competencies used to determine college readiness, and outcomes for minority, low income, and/or first generation college students were, to use ACT’s own carefully chosen term “dismal”.

We, of course, crash into the question of whether standardized tests are providing an accurate assessment of student academic outcomes, which many loudly and vociferously insist is simply not the case.  However, looking at the equally “dismal” graduation rates of American high school graduates at 2 and 4 year colleges, it is much more difficult to ignore the clear warnings provided by year after year of seriously deficient outcomes from K-12 standardized tests that clearly demonstrate our public high schools are continually and spectacularly failing at the basic task of equipping most students with the core competencies they will need for college and workplace success.

Daily demands for more tax money coupled with the creation of more regulations has been the reflexive response of America’s public schools for many decades as they have stabbed around for a solution to the academically deficient outcomes of so many of their high school graduates, but improvements have been difficult—if not impossible—to discern.  We instead hear of more bullying, more sexual harassment, more violence, more drug use, more student disengagement—and far less focus on academic rigor in favor of more therapeutic models of instruction and student discipline that seem to have only further exacerbated all that ail our public schools.  Lowering the bar so that students can pass with minimal effort, encouraging disrespect, and discouraging personal responsibility are teaching strategies guaranteed to handicap high school graduates as they strive to build futures for themselves, and the wreckage of so many young adult lives is ample testament to the backward and destructive nature of so much of what passes for public education today.

Although many are aware of these problems, public schools persist in their present form for a single, overriding reason: They provide what amounts to state-subsidized daycare for working parents.  Whether that local public school is doing its job is often tangential to whether it takes in children in the morning and holds on to them for the work day.  Any bright ideas that might imply ditching this system are certain to be met with outrage.  If it could, for example, be shown that high school students could learn and thrive in a system that combined a 10am-1pm instructional day combined with several hours of homework, it would not even be considered because it would conflict with the essential daycare function of public schools demanded by two-earner families and single parents who do not want their 15 year old studying at home unsupervised.

Moreover, having often troublesome adolescents secured within a school building meets the requirements of local police and elected officials who see the type of extra-judicial lock-up that public schools provide as a big win for public safety.  As crass as it might sound to those of more innocent minds and dispositions, public schools most valuable community function is sometimes simply keeping troublemakers confined within four walls for six to seven daylight hours, which might leave beleaguered teachers stuck in the worst of all possible working environments, but it still provides some respite and structure for juvenile justice and law enforcement officials.  It’s sad, but it’s a fact.

However, public schools now confront three pressing challenges that could force revolutionary changes and lead to the adoption of a wholly different business model: declining birth rates that are forcing the closures and consolidations of many schools and school districts, crushing legacy pension obligations that are gobbling up school budgets before the expenses of actual education are even considered, and decaying or archaic buildings that are prohibitively expensive to operate or repair.  Any one these three would be headache enough for any community or state; all three simultaneously will provide the impetus for changes that will be both far reaching and shocking to many.  Harsh arithmetic will inevitably lead to reforms that have been successfully resisted by the public education lobby for decades.

What form might these changes take?  I have some thoughts regarding this question.

It is, first and foremost, likely that high schools will need to abandon seat time as a proxy for education in favor of competency-based models that will dissolve the lockstep of grade level promotion and allow students to more quickly advance through the curriculum if they are able.  This could lead to accelerated models of graduation that might render the traditional 4th year of high school superfluous for many students, which will reduce instructional costs and incentivize diligent effort by students by providing a tangible reward for quickened effort.  Public schools could even be required to provide financial rewards in the form of scholarships to those students who work hard and leave for college early.  What a game changer that would be for students who are demotivated by the typically plodding pace of public school instruction.

Moreover, given the rapid and ongoing improvements in instructional technology, it is likely that more instruction will be personalized by educational software that will allow students to learn at their own pace.  The large scale adoption of this type of instruction, which has been in progress for many years now, will fundamentally change the role of teachers and empower students to take ownership of their own learning rather than continue to see learning as a burden being forced upon them.  This model of instruction will also better serve K-12 students when they later transition to higher education and the workplace, where individual initiative and personal responsibility—rather than dull compliance—are the keys to success.

Finally, we will need to insist that students be full partners in their own educations.  Disruptive, rude, and hurtful behavior, which is too often the norm in today’s public schools, must no longer be tolerated.  If students cannot act respectfully and focus on their schoolwork instead of their phones, they have no “right” to compel local taxpayers to fund their foolishness, which is likely also robbing their classmates of their opportunity to learn.  Establishing new norms that will present a free public school education as a privilege to be cherished rather than a right to be abused will collide with the coddlers who have long colluded in creating policies and procedures that have made our public schools into dangerous failure factories rather than safe institutions of enlightenment.

These change will be revolutionary, difficult transitions will be needed that will fundamentally change the fabric of public education, and likely a great many K-12 teachers and administrators who are unable—or simply unwilling—to embrace the personal and professional growth necessary to adapt will need to be shown the door.  Many will yearn for the days of low expectations and no accountability as they are compelled to adopt to a new educational reality.  However, what we can be certain of if we do not remake our schools is that human potential will be wasted, students will continue to leave K-12 without the skills they need to create successful adult lives, and America will continue to wallow far behind many other nations in educational outcomes—which will harm us all.

Also published on Project Forever Free on September 19, 2019