An international guidebook to a postindustrial-era American education

While the following quote from David Brooks’ most recent New York Times column was focused on changes occurring in Britain, it also describes what’s happening in public education:

… the general direction is clear: the move from a centralized, industrial-era state to a networked, postindustrial one.

Rapid growth in charter schools, homeschooling, dual enrollment, magnet schools, vouchers, tax credit scholarships and online learning reflects the decentralizing of public education’s industrial hierarchy as power devolves from school boards, teacher unions and state legislatures to teachers, parents and local community organizations. As individuals and local entities become empowered, they are forming horizontal networks through which they are generating and sharing customizable resources. A good example is a network of African-American charter school development teams in St. Petersburg, Fla. These teams are sharing ideas, pooling resources and developing specialized charter schools that will be both independent and interdependent. Their collaborative is dynamic and strives to combine the advantages of being big (e.g., lower costs via economies of scale) and small (e.g., being nimble).

The teacher evaluation, tenure and merit-pay bills passed by state legislatures this spring are attempts to increase productivity in the current industrial system by giving managers more power, but ultimately parental empowerment legislation will have the most positive long-term effect. In the postindustrial era, issues deriving from centralized-power hierarchies, such as district seniority rules and statewide tenure and merit pay plans, will be irrelevant. The idea of seniority-based transfers, for instance, makes no sense in a horizontal system of fluid learning networks.

Teaching and learning will not improve in a postindustrial public education system unless parents make good choices. The learning options available to parents will be almost limitless, so matching children with the learning options that best meet their needs will be challenging. Providing parents with good information and the support necessary to use this information well will be essential. Defenders of the status quo regularly argue that parents are incapable of making good education decisions, which is why power needs to remain centralized.

Brooks is optimistic that Britain’s political class is capable of successfully navigating their transition into a postindustrial society. Let’s hope our political and education leaders are up to this task also.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.