Throughout our history, education has promised a path to a better life. For the most part, this promise has held. With few exceptions, each generation has enjoyed financial means, access to a wider array of life choices, and enjoyed benefits that surpassed what was experienced by their parents and grandparents.
It has also been assumed that public education is a public good worth paying for even by citizens without a direct benefit, such as having children who attended school. The belief has been that a well-educated citizenry makes our communities and country better and more successful. The idea of supporting public good has led to major advancements in our nation that likely could not have been accomplished without the pooling of public commitment and funds. Our interstate highway and electrical systems are two examples.
Yet, the pandemic and several trends already emerging prior to the virus are calling these assumptions into question. For the first time in our nation’s history, polls report parents and young people believing that the next generation will not experience a life that is better than their parents. Resistance to paying for public services, including public education, has been growing for the past several decades. Meanwhile, there is increasing interest in limiting what can be taught or even discussed in schools. Laws are being considered and passed in multiple states that prohibit discussion of many issues of importance to the current and future health of our society.
The confluence of these trends presents a troubling prospect for the future of public education unless we can find a way to turn the situation around. A population that is already suspicious of investing for purposes of public good combined with disappointing life prospects and growing distrust of educators and what is taught in schools does not bode well for the future of public education. The question is: What can educators and schools do to restore confidence and support over the long-term?
Obviously, these are complex issues including elements that extend beyond what educators can influence. Yet, there are steps we can take to preserve this crucial American institution and its contribution to society.
First, we must summon the courage to champion the interests of students and their futures. The world has changed dramatically and will continue to become more complex and diverse. The future we are preparing today’s students for will be one in which there is no single majority. Meanwhile, creativity and innovation thrive when diverse perspectives and experiences combine in pursuit of an idea or in search of a solution. The success and happiness of our students will be enhanced through understanding, engagement, and respect rather than polarization and divisiveness.
Second, we must shift our focus from preparing students for a job to guiding them to be curious, flexible learners who are grounded in content and skills. Predictions are that more than half of the jobs today’s students will have do not yet exist. Our promise to learners must be to prepare them for whatever they might choose and their future asks of them. We cannot afford to prepare today’s students for yesterday’s world, or leave them lacking in what they need for tomorrow’s world.
Third, we can instill a sense of purpose and nurture their passions. Failing to have a direction or be clear about what is important will place today’s students at a distinct disadvantage in a world filled with options, expectations, and challenges.
Fourth, we need to develop in learners the skills of divergent and convergent thinking. Disciplined analysis, critical examination, and flexible approaches to the dilemmas and challenges they face will be crucial to personal success and the long-term health of our society.
Fifth, we can give students opportunities to experience the pride and satisfaction that can come with service. It’s important for them to appreciate the value of the common good and that not everything worth doing and supporting must accrue an immediate, direct personal benefit.
These ideas, of course, are starting places to address the critical and complex situation we face. They ask us to demonstrate courage, openness, and persistence. We may not control all the factors contributing to the forces we face, but we can do our part and advocate with others to do theirs.