Is Education Entering the ‘Age of Alternatives’?

Is Education Entering the ‘Age of Alternatives’?

Has anyone else noticed that some of the new schools being built, including much-celebrated “schools of tomorrow” resemble Google headquarters, as well as each other?

Without ignoring that much of what differentiates one school from another takes place below the surface, the desire to make schools look like high-tech office spaces might be just the latest demonstration that education has historically followed and reflected—rather than led—technological, political and economic change.

For example, “Industrial Era” schools of the early 20th century were designed to reflect what constituted modernity during that period, such as fixed schedules and efficient factory, assembly-line production. They were also built on Progressive Era principles that embraced standardization and centralization, making such early-modern schools a major break from the highly decentralized, non-standard, one-room schoolhouses they replaced.

One can see school reform, and actual schools, continue to reflect society’s dominant cultural tropes regarding modernity. For instance, as mainframe computers, with their centralization of computing power accessed through “dumb” terminals, entered enterprises (and movies) in the 1950s, “The New” returned to an emphasis on decentralized learning (sometimes supported by now-forgotten “teaching machines”).

Even popular culture, where robot teachers and wired students have been a staple of science fiction for decades, demonstrates our tendency to project current beliefs that schools should “leverage” (i.e., be built around) those technologies perceived as representing the latest form of modernity.

A review of the history of American schools and educational reform reveal other trends educational vision and pedagogy seem to be following. For example, in her 2005 book “Schooling America,” Patricia Graham divided a century of educational history into the following “Ages”:

  • An “Age of Assimilation” (roughly 1900-1920) when universal education and a common curriculum helped schools assimilate immigrants into American life, as well as assimilating distinct American cultures (rural/urban, poor/middle class, etc.) into a common identity.
  • An “Age of Adjustment” (~1920-1954) when progressive educators pushed for more focus on students as individuals, as well as broadening what they saw as stifling standardized curricula.
  • An “Age of Access” (1954-1983) when priorities switched to opening up schools to historically excluded groups, notably African Americans and women. The start date for this age can be tied to a specific event: the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education.
  • An “Age of Achievement” (1983-?) also triggered by a specific event (publication of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk”) during which academic rigor, supported by standards and testing, became a national priority.

Note that the goals associated with each era Graham identifies were political and economic, rather than purely academic.

With that background in mind, might we be entering a new age—an “Age of Alternatives”—driven by technological realities and political and economic priorities of a new century?

Technology is the easiest place to start since the internet, and all of the associated information and digital tools that have flowed from it, are driving nearly every discussion of what schools should look like and how students should be readied for the future.

In some cases, the personal empowerment offered by the internet is revitalizing Progressive Era ambitions for deeply individualized learning. But even if debates over technology and education only focus on the vocational question of what jobs our students are being prepared for, these trends are clearly generating different discussions than the ones started in 1983.

Politically, there is a sense that large, centralized schools have not succeeded, combined with growing belief that more flexibility and experimentation will be required to determine how students can universally achieve a high-quality education. Charter schools are one example of this phenomenon, as is the growth of a home-schooling movement which doubled in size between 1999 and 2012.

From an economics lens, it’s no accident that the idea of smaller and flexible schools is being picked up during an era when the small and flexible entrepreneurial organization is perceived as the new norm for the successful and innovative company, versus the large, centrally organized corporation that defined business success until very recently.

It should also be noted that individuals who grew their small entrepreneurial firms into economic behemoths, generating billions in personal wealth in the process, are at the forefront of providing massive new sources of funding for educational research and experimentation. This is part of a wider trend of philanthropic individuals and organizations (many with their own educational agendas) rivaling the federal government in terms of dollars put into projects centered on educational reform.

If an “Age of Alternatives” truly takes hold, students and families are likely to find themselves facing a broader range of choices as new schooling options and models—some remaining physical, others becoming increasingly virtual or blended—emerge. Within these spaces, new pedagogies are likely to not just expand but multiply as educational innovators, fueled by today’s spirit of entrepreneurism, try to differentiate their approaches from one another.

This analysis is meant to describe, rather than critique, the various technological, political and economic trends that might have already set a new age into motion, even as we continue to argue over “Age of Achievement” accountability issues such as the value of standardized testing. Such analysis might help us break out of a frustrating historic pattern, described in Graham’s book and elsewhere, in which America’s schools continually accomplish every mission given them, but by the time they do so the nation has moved on to other priorities.

It is easy to see problems solved and problems created during earlier educational eras through the rear view mirror. But if a new Age of Alternatives is just beginning, recognizing this historic trend now can help educational decision makers shape the future, rather than stumble into it, walking backwards.