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Rethinking Education: Intro (0/4)

When I moved into education a few years ago I was quickly struck with by huge that world is. The sheer number of dedicated people and well-intentioned organizations trying to improve US education is inspiring, and I tried to digest all of it. I was of course overwhelmed, and over time developed a concern that the breadth was, while inspiring, also inefficient and likely hiding problems (and solutions) that become hard to identify in such a sprawling landscape.

Certain sub-industries had created ‘market maps’ that helped their focus. For example, the CB Insights map of ed tech companies​​ gives investors and technologists a way to ​​think about how their skills and efforts fit into the ecosystem. Similar (though flawed) maps exist for higher education, charter systems, and even general reformers. However,​​ I’ve found nothing that works if your goal is to question education from a wider starting point. Many of us want to start with how to best structure and improve our society’s education. But ‘education’ is too big, and the subdivisions we typically jump to after that (‘math’, ‘tech’, ‘teaching’) are too narrow and disconnected from broader goals. I want a framework that lets us be more targeted, for the right reasons, as we address the hard questions about our learning ecosystem.

A few examples of how education being so broad causes problems today:

  • Lack of adequate distinction between subjects has led, for example, to attempts to evaluate and pay Kindergarten art teachers based on performance, because that was deemed the right policy for other subjects like middle school math.

  • “Common Core” becomes a politicized lightning rod as a symbol for centralization; the reality is some things should be standardized, some should not. But with no way for non-experts to mentally separate various parts of the school-day it’s not surprising they would react with hostility to apparent mass standardization.

  • Those working in “education” deal with an informational firehose with no easy way to filter it. When I tell people I worked in ed tech (at Zearn, a K-5 digital math curriculum), they often respond referencing MOOCs, coding platforms, or adult language learning programs. These have very little in common. But without a more specific framework we’re left grouping them altogether and get too overwhelmed by the magnitude to follow news effectively.

This paper is an attempt to set up an education framework by mapping learning goals to how they are achieved in a way that can make policy, content, product development, and other considerations of the whole ecosystem - especially schools - more approachable. This not a fully-baked proposal, nor does it touch many critical aspects of improving education (especially anything related to the structures of the school system - teacher pay/support, unequal funding, etc.). It’s a starting point to improve upon my own fragmented understanding, a thought-experiment on the goals and structure of education in 4 parts:

  1. Section 1 looks at the history that created today’s conflated world of ‘education,' why it’s problematic, and the balance between individual and societal goals

  2. Section 2 proposes learning goals as the core to an education framework, mapping education categories to the purposes they serve for students and society

  3. Section 3 evaluates how education categories differ on today’s most important questions in education policy and reform

  4. Section 4 illustrates a hypothetical school and education system built on these goals, categories and insights

“Learning,” “education,” and “school” are often used interchangeably. They are meaningfully different though, and my hope for this exercise is to clarify how they relate to each other. Society has many ‘learning’ goals it should pursue; its ‘education' system supports these learning goals that don’t happen independently; ‘school’ is the critical, state-funded institution within the education system. Not all learning goals should necessarily be part of school, and some likely are today as a result of inertia even if they could (should) be handled in other ways within the learning ecosystem. We’ll explore why historically first, and then how to think about things more explicitly going forward.