Saturday, September 12, 2015

Which Future of Public Schools?   Scenarios for 2025

The struggle to sustain and strengthen our public schools is really a struggle to envision and create a powerful future for the children.  To start this new school year with a focus on the children, I'm pleased to introduce Alexandra Whittington, a mom, a futurist, a tireless advocate for children, and, I think, an optimist about how we -- working together -- can make our schools what the children need them to be:

Educating.  All our Children has identified some of the top emerging issues and uncertainties in the future of public schooling: will corporate interests maintain their stronghold on curriculum and teaching?  Should schools embrace the cultural diversity of students and their families/communities?  Can high-stakes testing and real (i.e., “messy”) learning co-exist?   I value this exploratory perspective and it opens a mental space to flesh out some implications for the future—and consider if we like or dislike the impacts.  As a reader of Linda’s blog, a parent, and a futurist interested in education, I’d like to add the following future scenarios to the conversation she has initiated on learning, creativity and teaching.

Scenario 1:  Artificial Intelligence

Continued standardization and increased emphasis on technology in public schooling in 2025 has contributed to an environment where learning and teaching are automated, quantified, and above all, predictable.  Big data is the intersection of these major forces (standardization and technology) and guides the decisions of school administration. 

The technology essential for a successful school comes packaged as a benign Silicon Valley “making the world a better place” product. This fact lends to all types of privatization schemes involving school admins.  These partnerships ensure that tangible results (test scores), which generally increase funding, are achieved.  Publicly-funded school systems that are not so shrewdly run are quietly brushed aside by an invisible hand in the high-tech education marketplace. Robotics, artificial intelligence, massive data mining and virtual reality are just some of the technologies involved in the typical public school experience in 2025.

One of the biggest changes is that by 2025, a major in Theatre Arts is considered a good preparation for teachers.  But not for the public speaking skills or creativity….Since public schools use scripted lesson delivery in the classroom, "acting" becomes quite an advantage to getting hired.  The “coaching” that started out on headset technology has evolved with the use of VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) and, even though wearable technology is now very much a social norm, the most effective teachers are those who can memorize lines.  It boosts the bottom line when teachers skip the hardware.  And it helps differentiate human from robot teachers.

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For the most part, parents are kept out of the inner workings of school systems.  The privileging of data in schools has resulted in a predominantly impersonal, technical environment, so even though teaching is seen and described as highly “personalized,” it is based not on how well a teacher knows a student, or the quality of the time they spend working together, or parental influence and insights on their own child’s learning.  Instead, schools are service providers to maximize expected outcomes based on computational formulas meant to interpret a student’s abilities, strengths, weaknesses and, ultimately, career potential… all of which are now rendered as data points to be manipulated and mined.   

The result is an academic environment that lacks surprises.  For example, as long as the adequate instruction time and content is covered in class, student scores can be forecast and bad grades can be addressed before they happen.  So there are no bad grades, low scores, or failures.  Everyone passes.  It’s designed that way to provide a service (to give parents and students what they want, i.e., job or college preparation for the student) and make teaching a “skill” (not a passion or a career, but a compliant service role that, ironically, requires no specific preparation other than being a quick study). 

What the school system of 2025 is not designed for is accidental learning, spontaneous discoveries and unscripted connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.  Some parents and students balked, but it was the way society was moving anyway.  In 2025 it’s not just that learning is predictable but so is life.

Scenario 2:  Mind Manifests Itself

In 2019 a breakthrough scientific discovery was made.  A convergence of new data determined that creativity is the most critical mental capacity needed to develop intelligence starting at preschool age.  The multiple-choice question was suddenly like lead paint on toys; many parents took action as if their children faced life-threatening consequences and quickly became involved in the growing Opt Out movement.  By 2020 it was seen as a moral failing not to step in as parents and demand alternatives to the ‘teach to the test’ environment that had dominated America’s public schools for almost two generations.

A parent- and student-led movement took place, culminating in the biggest disruption to public schools since Brown v. Board; the Opt Out Walk Out of 2022 fought for what educators have always known:  that “mind manifests itself,” (as the Dr. Arnold Gesell and the Gesell institute has put it since the 1950’s) and that our schools should honor a child-centered philosophy of learning.  On the first day of school in fall 2022, a million kids and parents walked out.  The parents worked together in their neighborhoods to coordinate homeschooling and co-ops so that the children were still engaged in learning during the weeks-long protest.  Their employers sympathized with their cause and helped coordinate the effort.  The student absences added up to billions of dollars in federal school funds lost to the schools—this is what got their attention.  After weeks of empty threats the response of the school system was swift.  So-called “accountability” was left for dead and the funding model changed from “standards” based to equal investments in meeting the real needs of all our children. 

Protest against the Gates Foundation
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The students and their parents worked with school systems and legislators to negotiate new expectations of the public schools, making demands for International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, community-centered schools and Montessori schools.  Libraries were fully re-funded and enrichment programs like art, physical education and music became consistent parts of the school day again.  Parents were advocating for a variety of programs, guided by experts in childhood development and a strong recognition of the inherently valuable potential of each and every child. 

By the start of the school year in 2025, many long-overlooked obligations to our children were being addressed by the schools.  For example, young children had longer and more frequent recess breaks throughout the day.  Exercise became an important part of their day and lunch periods were extended—the childhood obesity epidemic was quickly reversed!  In fact, schools became central to the healthy sustenance of entire communities through school-run food markets.  The simple fact that children and families didn’t have to go hungry anymore was a tipping point that increased parent engagement to nearly 100% in most public schools.

The value of socialization at school was recognized as critical to emotional intelligence and students were allowed the time they needed to play and chat with friends and teachers on a more relaxed schedule.  Teachers were able to adhere to looser routines so that emergent learning opportunities could be utilized.  Parents enjoyed innovative “open door” classrooms that offered transparency via both face-to-face and virtual/remote access.  It took a lot more work on everyone’s part but the positive results were worth it.

At the same time, classes were given more opportunities to venture out and conduct hands-on learning in nature and in the communities.  A new relationship was being established between schools and families, built on trust.  Money and power had driven a wedge between teachers and students, parents and schools for way too long.  That chapter was over.

My scenarios follow a predictable pattern for images of the future:  one “optimistic,” one “pessimistic.”  The actual future will probably not be so black and white.  But the stories are meant to bring attention to our choices regarding key uncertainties today:  what should be the role of modern technology in education? To what extent do we allow private companies to monetize schooling? Can schools be forces for positive social change in our communities?  I wanted also to spread a hopeful vision where parents act as driving forces for change in our schools, preventing our children from being used as financial instruments, analyzed as data points, and developed into little more than a ‘future workforce’.  Let’s advocate for a future learning environment where all our children are given equal opportunities to grow in the best way possible.