A Real and Growing Threat to the Future of Public Education

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Throughout our history going to school and getting an education has promised a path to a life better than our parents’ lives. For the most part the assumption 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 is also true that throughout most of our history public education has been seen as serving the public interest and worth paying for, even by citizens without a direct benefit such as having children who attend school. The assumption has been that a well-educated citizenry makes our communities and country better and more successful. The same idea of supporting the 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 just two of many additional examples.

Yet today both of these key assumptions are under growing pressure and suspicion. For the first time in our nation’s history, polls show that parents and young people believe the next generation will not experience a life that is better than their parents’. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence of this perception’s validity in the lives of Millennials. Despite higher school enrollment rates and an increasing percent of the youth population engaged in education beyond high school, too many find it difficult to make enough money to become independent, a large percent are not able to save for the future, and they are faced with the likely demise of social safety nets such as Social Security during their lifetimes.

Meanwhile, there is growing reluctance among the populous to pay for services that do not provide direct, individual benefits. Funding for public projects and services, including education, are under growing pressure as people resist paying for public activities they are not accessing or see as having a direct return to them. Gone are the days when investment in efforts and initiatives that benefit the public generally enjoyed widespread confidence and support.

The confluence of these two 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 the purpose of public good combined with disappointing life prospects does not bode well for the future of public education support and funding. The question is: What can educators and schools do to restore confidence and support over the long-term?

Obviously, these are complex issues with elements that extend beyond what educators can influence. Yet there are steps we can take to do our part to preserve this crucial American institution.

First, we must shift our focus from preparing students for a job and concentrate on preparing them to be curious, flexible learners who are grounded in content and skills. Most 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 their future asks of them.

Second, we can instill a sense of purpose and nurture their passions. Failing to have a direction or be clear about what is important to them will place today’s students at a distinct disadvantage in a world filled with options, expectations, and challenges.

Third, we need to give students opportunities to experience the pride and satisfaction that can come with service. Important to re-establishing appreciation for the common good is an understanding that not everything worth doing and supporting has to accrue a direct personal benefit.

Fourth, we must help today’s students grasp the importance of leveraging diversity, not just tolerating it. Creativity and innovation thrive when diverse perspectives and experiences combine in pursuit of an idea or in search of a solution.  

Fifth, 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 contribute to the long-term health of our society.

These ideas, of course, are starting places to address the critical and complex situation we face. We may not control all the factors contributing to the condition, but we can do our part and advocate with others to do theirs. What else do you think we can and should be doing to preserve the viability and sustainability of the crucial institution of public education?

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