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Decentralizing Public Education

December 22, 2016 | Filed in HFM Superintendent Blog

Over the last 10 years, those of us in public education have largely ignored an inevitable trend toward the decentralization of public education. The opportunity to participate in software focus groups recently reaffirmed my growing realization that we are witnessing a significant shift created by market forces and the Internet.

Along with technology, there are political, social and economic reasons for this trend. The challenge for career public educators like myself is to recognize this trend and adopt it to save public education before we are replaced and the system becomes irrelevant.

Let’s begin by discussing the political fallout of President Barack Obama’s administration on public education and the recent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

During eight years under Obama, the American people witnessed two contradictory positions being supported at the same time. On the one hand, the Obama administration built on President George Bush’s legacy of centralizing education policy under federal control. At the same time, Obama supported the creation of more charter schools, a move by a highly centralized system to appear to decentralize.

Obama’s hyper-centralized attempt to improve public education simply doesn’t work in today’s environment. Arising from this failure is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2016. A close read of this legislation testifies that the feds want out of public education, and are ready to decentralize the system and give flexibility and authority back to the states.

The surprise election of Donald Trump, and his selection of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, seems to suggest an acceleration of this trend towards decentralization. Trump publicly supports not only charter schools but also vouchers and any other alternative to the failing schools within our inner cities and rural areas. Obviously, the Trump education philosophy aims to accelerate the decentralization of public schools.

If politics were the only driving factor behind decentralization, I have no doubt the teachers union and other adult interest groups would beat back this attempt and we would continue with our 100-year status quo. However, economics also plays a role.

The present public education system is not fiscally sustainable, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast. On both sides of the country, teachers’ unions have been able to infiltrate the political structure and create salary and benefit packages unimagined in the public sector. The problem is that these compensation structures cannot be sustained by the states. Several states are now considering other, less cost prohibitive ways to educate children.

Limited state and federal budgets over the next 20 years, exacerbated by an aging population, will force states and the federal government to make hard choices between the needs of a huge senior citizen voting block and public education. It’s likely the Trump administration will double down on the new flexibility of ESSA and allow states to make significant changes in how public education is delivered.

The social aspects of decentralization cannot be disregarded. Around the world, we are witnessing the rejection of globalization and the systemic centralization that comes with it. The people are rejecting centralized control. President Obama, in a recent interview, stated as much when he said people want more control of their lives.

Locally, consider the rejection of Common Core curriculum, testing opt outs, the 60% increase in home schooling over the last 10 years, and the loss of confidence in the traditional public education system by large swaths of our population. The public is embracing alternatives to the present system.

All the next Secretary of Education has to do is endorse vouchers, charter schools, home schooling and Internet-based schooling as reasonable alternatives to the status quo and I believe we will see an enormous amount of buy-in from families who presently feel marginalized and underserved by the traditional system.

The foundation of decentralization is the expansion of the Internet into our everyday life and the exponential leaps technology is making daily. Personalized learning, where the instructional content, technology and learning pace echoed the ability and interest of each student, is only possible on a mass scale today because of the technical infrastructure supporting it.

Where once homeschooling was a very difficult choice to make for parents, with the introduction of personalized learning software and the sophistication of these tools more and more parents are finding themselves able to opt out of the system. The majority of today’s homeschoolers don’t fit the religious zealot or political extremist caricatures. Most are middle-class and upper middle-class parents rejecting the traditional public education system.

At the same time, companies like Microsoft, who recently released a robust education edition of the very popular Minecraft game, are breaking into the classroom with innovative fun platforms that motivate students while they master critical 21st century skills.

As public educators, we still have our heads in the sand, for the most part. We refuse to see what is right in front of us. Our teacher training colleges still teach knowledge acquisition and stand-and-deliver methodologies that no longer mesh with today’s reality. The same can be said for how we teach in the traditional public school setting.

The present structure cannot produce students ready for 21st century careers or post-secondary education. We still train students to become knowledge collectors, but not knowledge manipulators or creators. Our focus – knowledge acquisition – has no economic value. It is the most basic building block to what students really need to succeed. It is no longer the appropriate end result, yet we still test and teach towards it as the goal. Public education needs to heed the signs of the times and recreate an infrastructure that embraces the decentralizing trends and allows all students to develop the skills they need to succeed.

By Dr. Patrick Michel, HFM BOCES District Superintendent

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