I am a second career teacher and so I have a limited understanding of the history of public eduction in the US. Pursing a masters degree has helped educate me on education. My most recent course on virtual schools exposed me to Disrupting Class by Christensen, Horn and Johnson. Part of their book reviews the history of education with an eye towards how industries change to survive amidst changing customer requirements. Some companies adapt to change and thrive, while others struggle and sometimes fail outright.
Moving the Goal Post
Why do we have education in this country? It is not part of any of the documents that laid the foundation. The purpose of education has changed overtime from a narrow focus for a limited number of students to a broader focus for a larger and more diverse student population. Thomas Jefferson wanted education to help produce new leaders and citizens that could self-govern. Towards the late 1890s and early 1900s, competition from Germany shifted the focus to teaching everyone a vocation. In 1905, only about one-third of first graders made it to high school. By 1930, three-quarters of first graders were attending high school. As the number of high school students grew, so did the curriculum with expanded offerings in art, vocational classes, and extra-curriculars. Around the 1950s, public schools expanded to include females, blacks, lower-income, and rural students. Brown vs KS Board of Ed played no small part in this inclusiveness. Towards the end of the 1950s, Russian technical prowess (Sputnik launch) prodded the US to focus the education system on turning out more engineers. The call to emphasize science and engineering was echoed again in the 1970s and 1980s. Japanese companies innovated and caused industry disruptions for their US competitors, which lead to a wave of downsizing.
For-Profit vs Non-profit
Businesses (for-profit) behave differently than schools (non-profit). In a business industry, a disruptive shift to some new performance metrics would open the door for new start-up companies to emerge with new business models structured to deliver the new value proposition. The new value proposition would serve consumers not being adequately served by the current generation of products. New start-ups in education face structural challenges that businesses do not. First, they must be allowed to offer their services and funded. Public schools are a legal monopoly and heavily unionized. Start-ups require tax dollars and this funding is taken from other public schools. Secondly, schools have dominant market share, so there are few "new" or unaffiliated customers. In order to take market share from existing public schools, start-ups need to create a disruptive innovation. Their new value proposition must be significantly better than public schools. Given the legal and labor restrictions, educational start-ups have been unable to sufficiently innovate save a few charter schools. Christensen, Horn and Johnson state that, "In our studies of disruptive innovation in the private sector, we are not aware of a single instance in which a for-profit company was able to implement successfully the disruptive innovation within its core business." Innovation is difficult. It will be especially difficult for a large, complicated system like the US educational system.
The US public educational system has changed dramatically over the past hundred years - driven by changing goals. The original schools were one-room schoolhouses where students of various abilities learned a relatively narrow curriculum. Although the number of high schools in 1970 was the same as 1930, there were major changes taking place. The prosperity of the US in latter part of the century enabled schools to grow into larger structures. Students were subdivided into grades and taught a broader curriculum with rich electives. Student participation in sports exploded. The educational system did well considering its goal was changed every ten to twenty years with relatively little additional investment or retraining.
Over time, the US has looked to its educational system to improve competitiveness. The Nation at Risk report (1983) said, “secondary school curricula had been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.” Will the current focus on the end result (e.g., NCLB and SAT scores) help students prepare for a job? Do schools prepare students to be good citizens as Jefferson intended? Can our schools innovate enough to properly prepare students for increasing global competition in a technology-rich world?
1. Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. McGraw-Hill, 2008.
2. Image used under Creative Commons license from http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveknapik/3787400601