Our education system is failing today’s children because it was designed to mass produce a large order of standardized people.
On this day (December 10th) in 1915, history was made as the 1 millionth Ford Model T car rolled off an assembly line at an auto plant in Detroit, Michigan.
Ford’s perfection of the assembly line and mass production was one of the great triumphs of the Industrial Age – or Second Wave American society.
In the early days of auto manufacturing, companies made cars one at a time. However, in order to have a scalable operation that met growing demand, mass production of standardized cars allowed Ford to become more efficient and reduce overall costs of production.
From 1908 to 1927, more than 15 million Model T cars were sold by Ford.
At first, production of a car cost about $850 or about $20,000 in today’s dollars. By the late 1920s however, production costs were lowered to $300, which is about $3,700 in today’s dollars.
The use of standardization, large-scale factories and mass-production were key components of industrial societies all over the world, and not limited to auto manufacturing. American Second Wave society implemented a mass education system, mass social welfare, as well as national standards across industries and greater centralized control.
However, today’s society is very different.
Technology has pushed America into a mix of a Third Wave and Fourth Wave society that is now being driven – not by standardization – but personalization, self-service, virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
While the Second Wave, or industrial era, was dominated by mass production, today’s society is far more individualized. We seek things that meet our specific needs and wants, and often, have context or meaning to our lives.
Third Wave trends started to really take shape in the early 1980s.
For those of you old enough to remember, Burger King launched its “Have It Your Way” slogan. This slogan was no accident. It aligned to the growing desire people had to have things customized.
In the 1980s we also got the “personal computer” or PC. Entertainment diversified (we went from 6 or 12 viewable channels, to hundreds more). Mobility increased as access to communication and transportation expanded. And what defined standard relationships, families, learning and more all changed. For example, we went from talking about the “nuclear family” (a standardized view of a family) to recognizing a far broader and more accommodating concept of what a “family” is or can be.
By the 1990s, one for many, or “one size fits all” was no longer the principle that dominated our lives. We wanted things our way.
If we look at the last 20 or 30 years, advancements in technology have steadily fueled the greater sense of hyper-individualism we have today.
The personal computer revolution was followed by the Internet revolution. These both helped form the baseline of Third Wave society, and encouraged us to seek out more personalized products and services.
Then we got the mobile revolution, which was followed by today’s artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) revolutions. AI and VR are the forces driving change throughout every aspect of our lives and forming a Fourth Wave society that is hyper-personalized – meaning we are focused not just on our needs and wants, but our aspirations and feelings as well. We are entering an age where we can seize every moment. An age where a sense of limitless opportunity and potential is starting to take hold.
To help illustrate the changes taking hold in our society, let’s discuss Burger King again.
Burger King recently decided to change its slogan from “Have It Your Way” to “Be Your Way.” This also was not an accident. Burger King’s new slogan emphasizes even greater individuality and ownership of one’s life. The idea is that you can not only get food the way you want it, but it also is OK to live how you want and express yourself in any way you want.
Just think about this for a moment: Burger King, a fast food restaurant, went from mass producing flame-broiled burgers, to customizing orders, to now seeking to make an emotional connection with their customers to not only understand them better, but also to show they respect and encourage each person’s desire to be who they want to be.
Burger King is still a restaurant. But it has changed as society changed.
Education: Still Riding The Second Wave
So, what does ANY of this have to do with education?
Quite a bit, actually.
As referenced above, industries and families and culture have gone through massive changes – or revolutions. I think the word “revolution” is apt, because it means complete systematic change has taken place.
We see it at home, in the workplace, on television and in movies, in music, restaurants, how we find and buy the things we want and more.
Yet, despite all of the changes we have seen, across every aspect of our lives, our system of education still remains… fundamentally… the same… riding the Second Wave.
It is a great paradox that on one hand we have normalized the idea that, due to technology, a person – any person – can learn what they want, when they want and from where they want. And at the same time, as a society, we still send our children into a mass education system that treats them and young adults like Model Ts rolling off an assembly line in 1915.
The mass educational system we have does not regard children as unique or distinctive people who need or want different information or have an infinite number of aspirations, but as products that are shuttled and delivered to a factory, and go through an assembly line.
This is not a design failure. This is how our school system was supposed to work in 1915 and beyond – until we decide to change it.
Our current education system is failing today’s children, because it was designed to mass produce a large order of standardized people.Michael Hackmer, 2019
As we progress through the 2019 – 2020 school year, our schools are still the old factories of our industrial era that require all children to attend, arrive on-time, perform specific and often repetitive tasks, and then leave. All learning is to take place in one, centralized place. And the end product goal is a child that is designed and assembled with the same outcome that is in mind for all children.
This is not how our Third and Fourth Wave society functions today.
Most importantly, this is not how children function or thrive today.
How Long Do We Continue To Accept The Poor Results Of Our Mass Education System?
Recently, test results were published from two standardized tests. One is from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – an international test – and the other is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – a test administered in the United States.
The results from both tests show some minor success for American school children, but a lot more stagnation and regression / lost ground. This poor performance comes on the heels of years of changes (new laws and policies), and in spite of federal, state and local governments, businesses and communities investing billions of dollars in education.
In short, we are doing more to try and fix the existing system, and spending more money, but still achieving poor results. In fact, some results are getting worse.
Here is a selection of data points from the tests mentioned above and some other studies that I think are worth noting when considering the performance of our mass education system:
- 20% of American 15-year-old students scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old.
- The bottom 10% of all US students taking PISA lost ground compared those who took the same test in 2012.
- American ranking increases in PISA have been explained as less about learning successes or improvements to education, but due to declining test scores in other countries. In other words, our ranking has improved because other countries are doing worse than we are.
- Two out of three children (4th and 8th grade) did not meet the standards for reading proficiency set by NAEP.
- The average eighth-grade reading score in NAEP declined in more than half of the states compared with 2017, the last time the test was given. The average score in fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states.
- Overall, reading scores declined for 4th and 8th graders over the last 10 years across ALL percentiles.
- Math scores on the NAEP for 4th graders show a net 1 point drop over the last 10 years for students in the 10th percentile to the 75th percentile. For 8th graders, the decline was a net 10 points for students in the 10th percentile to the 75th percentile.
- In California, eighth-grade scores fell in both reading and math. Los Angeles Unified scores fell by the most of any of the urban districts across the country. California ranks at the bottom of the nation in reading and math for fourth- and eighth-graders, but at the top of the nation in the size of its achievement gaps.
- Studies have shown the student engagement in the classroom and with their learning drops every year they are in a mass education system. The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012. Gallup found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students. And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged.
- The vast majority of public two- and four-year colleges report enrolling students – more than half a million of them–who are not ready for college-level work, a Hechinger Report investigation of 44 states has found. This forces students into remedial education and turns higher education into an expensive continuation of mass education secondary school work.
- Even in states highly regarded for their education systems (Massachusetts and New Jersey), over 30% of students are placed into remedial college courses.
When you look at the above data, it is clear that the results from our mass education system are not positive or successful.
Alvin Toffler, the famous futurist, once noted that for future generations, the true illiterates would not be people who could not read or write, but people who could not ask questions, think critically, logically and creatively. He based that on the influence of technology on society and work, and the fact that most schools had literacy covered.
Our focus on standardization (especially in testing), teach to test, demand on graduating to attend college and out-dated curricula are all part of the problem and actually creating an environment where people don’t read and don’t think critically or creatively.
This begs the question posed above: How long do we continue to accept the poor results of our mass education system?
How long do we continue to avoid making a change that will improve the lives of all our children?
What About Education Reform?
What about education reform?
The calls for education reform picked up a lot of steam starting in the 1980s.
Policy-makers, parents, teachers, school administrators and others recognized that technology was changing fast, and society was changing along with it. They did not fully comprehend everything that was going on (most still don’t), but people knew that our education system needed some attention.
Most of us are familiar with various government laws and programs that have been introduced, especially over the last 20 years, such as: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, the Every Student Succeeds Act, etc.
Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, none of these have produced much, if any success at improving education in the United States.
Common Core went from being a bright star (supported by Bill Gates, numerous governors and others) to being strongly disliked by both Liberal and Conservative educators and politicians. Some states backed out of the program completely, while others actually use their consistent opposition to Common Core as an example of their superior education policy-making.
When I read quotes from educators, policy experts and politicians in articles about low international or national test scores, or failing academic achievement in general, there is very little agreement on the causes or the solutions.
The same is true when you examine reader comments to articles and reports on education in America. People whose experience spans a wide range of professions (including past and present teachers), age, ethnicity and other factors all have a million different ideas on what needs to be done.
A common refrain is that everyone talks about the need for education reform.
People ask, “What education reforms will help turn things around?”
In response, we see the usual suspects: more funding for schools, better teacher pay, less homework, longer school days… and the list goes on and on.
There is no doubt that every school system wants more money, better teachers, school materials that match testing materials, and students who are not concerned about socioeconomic challenges or bullying or other problems.
School districts battle every year over funding, better teacher pay, earlier start times (or later start times), less school vs more school, more tests or homework vs less tests or homework, and whole range of other issues.
But the idea that one reform or five reforms or all of the reforms that educators or politicians or parents want is going to somehow create an academic unicorn and change the direction of education in America is wishful thinking.
The truth is that no one really wants to hear the truth.
No one wants to hear, “There is nothing we can do to improve the current system,” because no one wants to believe that nothing can work. Something has to work, right?
The truth is that when it comes making improvements to mass education – there is nothing that will get us the results we really want.
To help illustrate this point, here is a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say I told you that you were going to have to sit in a school for 5 days a week, several months of a year, for 8 years of your life, and that this school was designed to make you less creative every year.
For 8 years, the teachers at this school are going to insist you memorize a lot of information you don’t need to know – that does not connect with your life – and demand you adhere to a strict schedule with little to no time for yourself. A vast majority of your courses will be required courses, and you will not have the freedom to explore more of what interests you.
Oh, and I will tell you ahead of time that you will be bored at least 50% of each day, every day, for the next 8 years.
Now, do you think it really matters if you wake up earlier to attend this school? Or arrive later? Does it matter if you read from a different text book? Or eat a better lunch? Or if your teacher is paid more money?
Of course not!
None of those things, nice as they are, will change how the system is designed or the results it achieves. Peripheral changes or adjustments do not change how the system itself functions. You may have eaten better, your teacher may have more financial security, and maybe there is a slight bump in some test scores for a large percentage of students in your age group, but the overall goal and output of the education system remains the same: to mass produce a large number of standardized people.
Unfortunately, the hypothetical I gave you above is the reality for our children today. Students are sent to schools that are designed to strip them of creativity and individuality, and standardize them. As parents and leaders, the best we have managed so far is to change lunch programs, add money or switch around school start times.
Studies prove the negative affects are real.
The truth is, if given the choice, most people would not want to put themselves through 8 years of that kind of experience.
If it were you, you would probably want an alternative.
So, what is holding you… or… us… back from creating an alternative to mass education?
Viva La Revolución… de Educación!
Two fundamental reasons are keeping us from really changing education in the United States and giving our children a much better learning experience and brighter future:
- We don’t accept that the system is not designed to meet our current and future needs.
- We are afraid to accept we need to make a significant change, because “change” and the unknown scares most people.
First, let’s start to face the fact that we need to end mass education.
We need an education revolution!
But what does an education revolution really mean? It sounds a little scary.
Well, a revolution is “an overthrow of a government or social order, in favor of a new system.” Right there – in the definition – we see that a new system must emerge from a revolution. This is the first piece to the puzzle. When people talk about education reform they are talking about making “adjustments to a system in order to improve it.”
You see the difference, right?
Education reformers keep the system that is not working, but make little changes – like – arriving a little earlier or later, or you add jumping jacks to start your day instead of quiet reading. Whereas education revolutionaries decide to do something completely different.
We’ve all heard the definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result. Well, education reformers are doing the same kinds of things again and again. They are trying to adjust, tweak, or repair a system that is not designed to produce the results we want… correction… need for our children.
When we look at the data and the short-term and long-term results, we can see the system is not working to get our children where they need to be. The laws, the programs, the money, the adjustments are not working. Hence, we need to accept that nothing anyone does will make the system perform significantly better. We need to make a change.
Now, the second piece to the puzzle deals with our fear of change.
If we are ever going to make the systematic change we need to make, we cannot think about such a change as actually being a real change or even doing something that is an unknown.
We know the current system is not working (at best, it is not working well). So, if we think about what is really working all around us and applying those same actions to education, then we are not really doing something we are unfamiliar with at all. We are only doing what we know works!
So, what is working? Where do we look?
Well, to put it simply, we need to look all around us. We need to look at the world we live in today. How do we consume information? How do we buy things? What options do we have for education currently? What would we love to have access to if we could create our ideal learning experience?
We need to ask ourselves, “How is the world is changing?”
Once we do this, we can start to build an educational system that reflects our present and future technology, culture and values. We can build a learning experience that is not limited just to our children, but to everyone – at all stages of life. Learning is a life-long endeavor for all humans, and it is time we started supporting this mission.
Here are two basic questions for you:
- Do we want a system that continues to standardize and marginalize our children, and strip them of creativity and individuality?
- Or do we want a system that encourages learning, exploration and creativity, and respects the individual uniqueness of each child as well as fosters a wide and accepting view of ecosystem we live in today?
An Outline For Third And Fourth Wave Education
Now, before you flip out at the idea of ending mass education, let’s clarify a few things.
- Just because we end “mass education” does not mean we end “public education.” A system of “mass education” and “public education” are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, under Third and Fourth Wave education we will end up investing more in a more diverse suite of educational programs available to more people.
- Ending “mass education” also does not mean we eliminate curriculum or all standards. It does mean we eliminate the idea of one, universal education system that is designed to standardize all children.
So, what is a preliminary framework or outline for a Third and Fourth Wave education system?
- Education must be treated as a lifelong journey or pursuit for all of us.
- Standardized outcomes must be eliminated. The idea that every child needs to know specific things about math, biology and chemistry, for example, or that students need to be categorized and grouped by age is obsolete.
- Standardized testing and comparisons to other nations and states needs to be abandoned in favor of project-based assessments. Too many schools are teaching to tests, which then make the results more about memorization than knowledge. However, project-based assessment allows for different solutions that work to be done. A display of applying knowledge, especially in context to one’s life or future aspirations, is a much more effective indicator of learning.
- Focus problem solving in a way that is creative and cross-disciplinary, not linear and results focused or competitive.
- Build learner communities and crowd-sourced learning environments. These must be supported by federal, state and local governments, as well as businesses and organizations. By expanding the number of in-person and virtual learning environments, we provide a wide pool of information, lessons and teachers that cross borders and schools districts.
- Build communities of “Learning Agents” who help learners of all ages to build a learning plan as well as a comprehensive support system that includes virtual and physical learning opportunities.
- Change secondary education into a time of “Exploratory Learning.” Students should no longer need to be designated to one school, but be able to enroll in different programs for periods of time. A student may want to enroll in a three-month program around “Environmental Sustainability and Healthy Living” or a program on “Building Robots.” Baselines of education / knowledge can be layered into new programs and classes.
- Recognize that our model of higher education needs to change. Learning and skill development is now a continual process throughout one’s lifetime. People do not have time or money for a 4 year program every time they want to pursue a new career. Colleges and universities that do not offer specialized and personalized education, but are instead expensive continuations of high school will become dinosaurs. Instead, programs that offer shorter, more intense spurts of teaching and training will take over. Quality of knowledge and project-based assessments will come to mean more that a piece of paper with a degree printed on it. This does not mean we will see an end the need for advanced degrees in medical, scientific or legal professionals. However, it does change the landscape of most higher education.
As we have seen the rapid changes brought on by technology to our society. This outline serves as a starting point for how we can build a new education system that benefits our children and society as a whole.
For many people, fear of change is the reason why mass education still exists today. For virtually all Americans, the only system they have ever known is the mass education system. No one wants to believe that something that has lasted so long cannot be tweaked and made to work. What’s more, people are afraid to make a life-altering change such as replacing our system of education.
Increasingly, however, more people are recognizing that systematic change is what we need.
One person wrote in response to a NY Times article, “‘It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts,“:
We need to replace the punitive aspects of education with an appreciation for the utility of learning. Students don’t care about scoring better than a Chinese counterpart on some test, but they do want to figure out how to maximize their allowance. We need to fill the gaps in knowledge bases so students can build on a foundation, not pass students along with insufficient background to master new concepts; we need to help them develop new tools so they will want to take on new challenges; we need to accept that learning rates are not universal. And we need to stop looking at education as test competition.Ann R, Columbia, MD, NY Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/us/us-students-international-test-scores.html#commentsContainer)
Another comment responding to the same article noted:
Kids are naturally curious but the pressures to get test scores up, increase content covered, and loss of life-giving activities like recess, art, and music extinguish curiosity and replace it with compliance.Annie O’Shaughnesay, Vermont, NY Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/us/us-students-international-test-scores.html#commentsContainer)
There are some great points to extract from both.
The first is the use of the “punitive” when referring to “aspects of education.” Punitive means to inflict or take action that is intended as punishment. This is the affect of mass education today, precisely because it does not encourage an “appreciation for the utility of learning,” or how learning allows one to meet their aspirations. It is controlled and standardized and compulsory and rigid and not contextual or necessarily relevant.
The second point is that education should not be based on performance compared to a Chinese student or even a peer. Learning is about individual mastery, and each child needs to learn at their pace and be encouraged to explore new challenges – tapping into their natural curiosity. Now, the system is based on compliance and conformity.
If one has an objective review the educational testing data, perspectives (such as the ones shown above) and other trends, no additional proof should be required to know education reform has failed and a new system is required.
If we want a better future for our children, we need to start thinking about how we can end the mass education system and truly revolutionize education. We need to outline the shape or characteristics a new system would take. And we need to start taking action now.
We need to put aside fear of replacing the old with new, and realize that we already have replaced so many aspects of our lives and culture. The change is all around us. It is time to stop being afraid of what already exists, and use the technology and values we have to better the lives of ALL children in America.
Michael Hackmer was born in Boston, MA in 1975. Graduated Phillips Academy, Andover in 1994. Received his B.A. in Politics from The Catholic University of America in 1998. Hackmer is Chairman of the Reform Party of Virginia (www.reformpartyva.org). He has specialties in digital marketing, social media marketing, SEO, project management and strategic planning. He also is the founder of Social Web Tactics (www.socialwebtactics.com), a digital marketing and sales agency focused on providing businesses and organizations the ability to connect with their audience using the latest and most effective digital technologies and tools.
‘It Just Isn’t Working’: PISA Test Scores Cast Doubt on U.S. Education Efforts, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/us/us-students-international-test-scores.html
Reading Scores on National Exam Decline in Half the States, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/us/reading-scores-national-exam.html
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How Do You Think American Education Could Be Improved?, New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/10/learning/how-do-you-think-american-education-could-be-improved.html
U.S. math scores remain flat on international test of 15-year-olds, EdSource. https://edsource.org/2019/u-s-math-scores-remain-flat-on-international-test-of-15-year-olds/620711
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