Comparing today’s high school education to a 50-year-old mainframe computer, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates once said that our schools were created “to meet the needs of another age.” He predicted that, until we reinvent them, “we will keep limiting – even ruining – the lives of millions of Americans every year.” Interestingly, this is one of the few observations that today’s liberals and conservative can agree on. The future of education “requires a set of big ideas,” says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, while conservative writer Daniel Gelernter believes that “public schools have lost the right to exist.”
What strikes so many observers of public schooling is that in the 180 years since Horace Mann’s invention of our current educational system, the nature of manufacturing has evolved from reliance on physical labor to sophisticated industrial robots, the nature of military service from riding horses to mastering “smart” weapons, and the nature of accounting from paper journal keeping to the use of computerized spreadsheets. Yet in all that time the underlying structure of public education, with its fixed grade levels, uniform class structure, and one-size-fits-all curriculum, has remained essentially unchanged. In truth, the assumption that we best educate kids by herding them by age into classrooms in public buildings for nine months of the year, thirteen years in a row, rests on remarkably little scientific evidence.
It is tempting to blame our antiquated system on the foot dragging of teacher unions, but the resistance to reform is much deeper and more broadly based. The problem in many American communities is that the public school, as outmoded as it may be, has nevertheless become the organizing center of civic and social life – so much so that people are incapable of imagining anything different. Most parents can no more imagine life without local boards of education and PTAs than realtors can appraise homes without reference to the variety of sports teams and extra-curricular activities at district high schools. Gates himself has warned that some of the strongest resistance to education reform comes from the legions of fathers more invested in coaching baseball than in improving student math scores.
But if we are psychologically incapable of designing a better educational system, at least we can do the next best thing: empower parents with enough choices so that the trial and error of individual decision-making will inevitably point us in new directions. If we already knew how to improve education, explains Paul Peterson, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “it would be easy to fix, but because we don’t know what works, that’s why we have to have competition. That’s why we want to let 1000 flowers bloom. [To] see what happens on the ground.”
Advocates of school choice have long argued that public funding of private and even home-based education would help poor, minority, and learning-disabled students, as well as give more freedom to religious families. But it is now clear that there is another justification. Only by injecting more independent – dare I say even spiritual – thinking into our ossified educational system can we generate needed, if unpredictable, changes for all.