Wither education: Are we preparing our children for the twenty-first century?

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Gisèle Huff

Thomas Jefferson, in a 1787 letter to James Madison, wrote, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” Those words should resonate with everyone alive today, as we struggle to maintain even civil discourse and civic engagement. Because Jefferson was right—in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, an educated populace is imperative.

We have failed to heed his words, although it is not from lack of trying. Since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, a steady drumbeat of reforms and innovations have been brought to bear on our K–12 education system, all strongly supported by private dollars. As executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation, I am part of this effort, so I applaud those of my foundation colleagues who recognize the fundamental part K–12 education plays in lessening myriad societal problems.

Unfortunately, our collective efforts have done little to improve the performance of our children. This is partly because those providing the money, many of whom are revolutionaries in their fields, haven’t required the same return on investment as they do in their business endeavors. If they had, they would have steadily pivoted to other possible solutions and used their considerable resources to rapidly test their effectiveness. So that’s exactly what we must do going forward, lest we suffer the consequences that Jefferson feared.

Since time immemorial, the purpose of education has been to transmit knowledge from one generation to the other. Starting with the most basic technologies like fire and the wheel, we have learned from our ancestors what we needed to know first, to survive, and after the Industrial Revolution, to thrive. Every generation has added to the trove until the beginning of the twenty-first century, when both the speed and the amount of knowledge increased so dramatically that the experts (the shamans, the high priests) were no longer able to maintain their dominance. Knowledge is now a commodity, and what our children need to learn is where to find it, how to evaluate it, how to select what is germane, and how to apply it to the problem they are trying to solve.

Yet our current education system was developed in the early twentieth century and was well designed to meet its Industrial Age needs. What it was not designed for was the challenges of the twenty-first century. In today’s information age, there are fundamental things it gets wrong. For the past thirty-five years, everyone involved in K–12 education has been clamoring to prepare our children to be college- and career-ready. But the components of our existing system—Carnegie units, seat time, pacing guides, age-based cohorts, summative testing regimens that serve as autopsies, memorization, and competition—don’t achieve those goals because they were never designed to do so.

There is, however, a solution: Adopt competency-based learning, which replaces many of the current system’s inadequate, dated elements with sequences that enable students, teachers, parents, and administrators to monitor, in real time, the progress pupils are making. To facilitate this shift, we must develop strong academic standards, and convert them into learning objectives that can be taught in whatever way individual teachers find most effective. Then pair all of this with short online assessments that test whether students have mastered content; the requisite technology to accomplish this already exists.

Competency-based learning allows every student to learn at their own pace and understand that failure is just a step on the road to success. It provides all adults involved with actionable data to find appropriate interventions as necessary. And it frees teachers from the requirement of designing their own lesson plans. Many hours are wasted when educators all over the country must do this on an individual basis, all while dealing with upwards of thirty students who range widely in ability. In any given fifth grade classroom, for example, a teacher today might have three weeks to teach fractions, even though some students need five. She’ll try to give them more help, but she’s responsible for dozens of other students who also rightly claim her attention. So those who are behind never master the content, and as the years go on, they fall further behind, and they graduate high school unprepared for college or career. The purpose of education is for children to learn. That must be the constant. Time must become the variable. We have it backwards.

Yet if we do make this must-needed shift, we must be careful to not give technology an outsized role. Students should still be in classrooms, together, interacting face-to-face with their teachers and peers. For it is only when children learn together that they acquire the ability to take others into account, to collaborate for achieving a common goal, and to understand that decisions have consequences. These are not skills and dispositions that can be exclusively developed in front of a screen, or at home, where there are no “others” with whom to contend. This also aligns with the burgeoning, important field of social and emotional learning, which can help give students a well-rounded education.

Accomplishing all of this will transform our schools. No longer will we be jamming square, triangular, octagonal pegs into the round holes of standardization by shaving their edges or discarding them. It’ll create an environment that accommodates all learners and provides them with whatever they need to achieve their potential.

Unfortunately, most of the organizations that are at the forefront of this revolution are non-profits. They face an existential crisis because they depend on philanthropic dollars to continue and expand their work. It is incomprehensible to me that most of my foundation colleagues (who support treatment of the symptoms but not the cure for the illness), corporations (who depend entirely on an educated workforce), and high-net-worth individuals (who give liberally to their alma mater) do not appreciate and/or acknowledge the role that K–12 education plays in our nation.

Perhaps it is the seeming immutability of the entrenched status quo that stands in the way of their involvement. But there is now a nascent movement that is advocating for the shift I have described above, and it has become the basis for the transformation. Like other societal movements such as women’s suffrage or gay marriage, this will take time. It will also take money.

So, above all, this is an appeal to my fellow philanthropists to invest some percentage of their giving in the revolutionaries. If we don’t fix K–12 education, we will not only lose our children, we will lose our country.

Gisèle Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation in San Francisco.