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Rethinking Education: issues at the category level (3/4)

The goals served by various categories of education are different. So what? This only matters if our approach in how we prioritize and deliver each category, in pursuit of the goals they each serve, should differ meaningfully. There are dozens of important questions in education debates today, many of which contain (very sensitive, political) implications about centralization vs. decentralization. Some particularly pertinent ones:

  • What topics should be required (standard curriculum) or optional (privately governed schools)?

  • Who should decide on the specific content taught and pedagogy employed?

  • How is this learning be efficiently delivered (tech, large group, small group)?

  • Where does funding come from, and how much for various topics?

  • Should success/achievement be measured for accountability to standards?

  • What, if any, effective mechanisms to use to incentivize and if necessary replace stakeholders who don’t measure up to standards?

These hard questions, with trade-offs both ways, should not be answered on a whim or all at once, or the same for ‘all of education.’ They should be examined based on the dimensions that matter and the trade-offs they each imply. For example: whether a given topic is best delivered in small group, large group, or digitally is a function (in part) of how much coaching is needed and how important peer-to-peer contact is to the learning goal. I’ve done this with some example questions for each issue above and ranked each category (slideshow).

Obviously the categories vary dramatically. It's interesting that on most, both sub-questions tend to point to the same answer for each given category (aka the trend line is up and to the right). Some quick conclusions that you could draw:

  • Core topics should be required and highly standardized - required, measured, funded - so every student gets this in high quality, but doesn’t necessarily require in-person/high-attention classes.

  • While it should be prioritized everywhere, humanities content and standard specifics could be left to localities

  • On the other hand, critical thinking topics should be more standardized to leverage the more objective and researched nature of the subject

  • Character and humanities have the most need for direct instruction, so high demands on teacher skill and time

  • Practical and physical education could be distributed, letting centralized focus and funding going to more standards-intensive categories;

  • Specialized topics could be done primarily outside the centralized school system despite standardization benefits due to low priority, funding and direct delivery scores

One way to organize the impact of this analysis further would be to group priority +

delivery + funding together to indicate whether each category should be in standardized schools or elsewhere in the education system, then adding content + accountability + measurement to guide whether decisions on each subject should happen centrally or locally. Mapping each category on these two dimensions starts to suggest a picture for the structure of the education system.

These of course are over-generalizations. Digging deeper into the categories and the sub-questions, we can see some nuances that are important to address:

  • Humanities: there’s a large gap between high societal benefit (2) and lack of standardization benefits; how to ensure the social benefit without the standards?

  • Character: high priority and funding, but how to effect that without standardization, agreed upon norms, or established classes in the subject?

  • Specialized: while lower in priority and funding early, some specialized subjects may be critical for students’ success in later education in more specialized higher education

  • Practical: some of this experience is needed to prepare students for action along with contemplation, putting ideas to work not just theoretical consideration

The half-answer to all of these is that neither decisions nor implementations are all or nothing. This structure is a starting guide, and the design of the system needs to reflect more nuanced realities. That is not to disregard the data and framework; rather, we should continue to look at the sub-questions and multiple goals served by each category rather than rely solely on the top-level summary. The next section roughly illustrates a system that would orient education more directly around these principles.