Rethinking Education: an illustrative system (4/4)
February 25, 2017
The nature of this exercise has an inherent bias towards decentralizing. There are plenty of extremely important goals and initiatives that should be part of the school system. But I’m not too worried about that: there are also plenty of voices lobbying to do and add more. This exercise is meant to balance out that bias of adding with a critical eye towards what has lingered in the status quo with complicating negative consequences. So the acknowledged bias here is towards subsidiarity: do things at the lowest, most decentralized level they can be efficiently done. This unburdens teachers and schools so they can put more focus and budget on the highest priority responsibilities; it maintains room for experimentation and growth; it makes the system anti-fragile; and it gives agency to communities who clamor for it (so is good politics, even if you err on the side of more ‘expert’ control in education).
Coming back to the dimensions from earlier, we can see a starting structure. School would focus on core skills, critical thinking and humanities, as well as character development, with the first two more standardized across schools, drawing on the best research available to make sure each student gets the most helpful preparation, which can then be tested to incentivize and hold accountable schools and teachers for this education. Humanities - for which testing is harder, general exposure most important, and values diverse - would be left more (though not completely) up to localities. Specialized, practical and physical education could happen more outside of school through other institutions; for example, community publications with journalism classes, vocational training supported by employers, and sports leagues respectively. These are of course generalizations for still-large categories..
Within humanities you may have some nationally mandated (and funded) portions of the curriculum to ensure societal goals like unity, while leaving other parts more distributed. Many programs in the supporting categories (counseling, health) - for example free lunch - obviously may coordinate closely with school systems as that is the institution already in place to reach students. But they could be operated outside the direct purview of principals and others already over-burdened with all that is required to deliver academic education. Similarly, this framework doesn’t suggest that specialized education has no place; just that the focus of our scaled school system with standardized testing, pay-for-merit policies, and mobile teaching force should be foundational skills plus the critical thinking and humanities every student needs. Dance classes, Model UN, sports and agriculture classes are all great, but those can be decided and run (and have funding allocated) more locally. Some types of practical education may make it into some schools, but things like vocational training should be left more to employers or employee training organizations (even within the government), rather than thought of as part of the standard school system.
This structure would keep each institution closely aligned to - and accountable to - the learning goal it is tasked with developing. Principals and teachers would know the areas they are responsible for, which would be the focus of their energy. Sports leagues and clubs would be supported and run separately, providing a different benefit and so operated under a different set of norms and policies and debates. And when people - be it the math teacher, state superintendent or tech billionaire - are aiming to improve education, they would be able to keep more specific goals in mind when pursuing training, funding, policies and reforms.