It is 2020, and so much has changed in American society. What we now take for granted was deemed futuristic optimism just a decade ago—the great numbers of electric cars and Zipcars; the ubiquitousness of windmills and solar panels; the popularity of medical marijuana and the decline in narco crime; the impressive numbers of women and ethnic minorities serving as CEOs, commissioners, and university presidents.
And so much has changed—for the better—in the realm of public education. Consider just a few developments:
• The corporate community, led by Microsoft and Intel, won the battle for extra pay for math and science teachers. U.S. math and science scores consequently climbed to rank among the top five nations of the world.
• From 2009 to 2017, the Obama administration invested heavily in teacher-residency programs that placed gifted college graduates of color in previously low-performing schools, especially in English-as-a-second-language, math, and science classrooms.
• The pressure for improved student achievement led to universal value-added achievement-test reporting. School leaders now can tell which teachers in which schools are improving in performance, and what happens to pupils transferring into and out of a school.
• Electronic portfolios and pupil-performance transcripts, modeled after the standardized national health records approved by Congress in 2010, replaced traditional report cards and their letter grades.
• The notorious “No Child Left Behind” version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act was substantially changed—twice, in fact. The Mission Impossible goal of making every child proficient in critical subjects (at least on paper) was replaced by the more realistic goal of witnessing 60 percent of the country’s students graduating from college without the need for remediation.
• The 21st-century-skills movement caught on among the states, which adopted additional education standards including the following:
Global literacy, so young adults might locate diplomatic and economic trading partners on a Mercator map.
Financial literacy, covering interest rates, credit cards, municipal bonds, and derivatives—and also preparing students to ward off the threat of another economic collapse of the kind their families and teachers weathered a decade earlier.
Technological literacy, from powerful Excel spreadsheets that sort 24,000 records in seconds, to PowerPoint presentations with hologram applications, to the latest ways to tweet about and Google homework assignments.
Other forces strengthened the cultural and developmental roles of schools as well as their academic effectiveness. There was renewed support nationwide for classes in art, music, and drama. And following Oprah Winfrey’s lead, America declared war on obesity in 2011, leading to a resurgence of physical education in U.S. schools (and the incarceration of a staggering number of sugary-beverage bigwigs convicted of high crimes against humanity).
All these developments seemed the most unlikely of bets in 2010. Flummoxed public school leaders faced serious challenges in this past decade of flux, including the following:
• Charter schools, enjoying bipartisan support, tripled in number. Hundreds of religious schools changed their names and shed religious symbols to qualify—and to compete for state and federal funds.
• Home schooling, just a blip on the radar screen in 2009, grew to become the preferred education system for an additional 5 million pupils, stimulated by the widespread availability of Internet courses, some originating from the immensely popular Florida Virtual School.
• Public school superintendents and business managers of districts serving fewer than 1,500 students became an endangered species. The number of superintendents was slashed by 50 percent, while the average district size ballooned to include 5,000 students.
• Moreover, the very title of “superintendent”—with its evocation of men who oversaw Gilded Age railroad companies or textile-mill workers—became increasingly controversial. A few states, and lots of charters, experimented with more modern job titles such as president or director of education.
• Niche instruction, such as special and vocational education, increasingly migrated to regional intermediate units: collaboratives fashioned after the New York state Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, and the Connecticut Regional Education Councils, often serving 20,000 to 40,000 students.
Compounding the rapid pace of change, higher education experienced even more upheaval, with millions of adults and many more teenagers bypassing traditional campuses to take courses online for college credit. Even during the Great Recession of 2009–2011, the online University of Phoenix enrolled 425,000 students. Most of the K-12 world, however, persisted in paying scant attention to what had become one of the 10 largest universities in the world.
Suddenly, online education served 10 percent of the college population and generated $11 billion in annual revenues. Those numbers doubled again, as of 2020, and now one in three students will pursue e-degrees. The trend has dramatically influenced the training of would-be college instructors and high school teachers alike.
Earlier in the 21st century, India, China, and Scandinavia won the race for test-score bragging rights, while the United States continued to face a dismal dropout rate and woeful infrastructure. Back in 2007, a grim report titled “Tough Choices or Tough Times” promoted serious reforms. Even before the Great Retrenchment, this panel called for statewide salary scales, collective bargaining, and unified retirement systems for educators. The prospect of saving a million hours of local negotiation time appealed to many in the field, if not to local law firms and labor arbitrators. The prospect of equalizing pay schedules between cities and wealthy suburbs appealed to liberals and advocacy groups. Likewise, teachers were relieved when their retirement plans were transferred into Social Security, after that system was restructured and saved following the 2010 midterm elections.
The “Tough Choices” report also called for more-rigorous high school exit exams and for contract schools run by ambitious, energetic teachers shaped by such programs as Teach For America and the Teacher Residency programs of Chicago, Boston, and other cities.
Local superintendents reacted to these changes in radically different ways. Some adamantly held that the only valid instruction occurred in cinder-block classrooms with a real, live teacher talking to 25 kids—the way schools had been since the 1890s to Charlie Brown’s schooldays.
The frustrated administrators’ lament was amplified by declining pupil enrollments—10 percent in many Northern states. Legislators cried foul about paying more and more for less and less education. The lawmakers of the land reinstated incentives that sweetened state aid formulas for school district restructuring, and supported the sharing of services in BOCES-type educational collaboratives.
States, foundations, and the federal government also collaborated to raise high school graduation rates. They endorsed “multiple pathways” strategies promoted by the Ford Foundation that used internships, community-based service-learning, and other means to keep 17-year-olds in school. They funded community colleges, to enroll bright but bored high school students eager to earn credits for both a diploma and a college degree. They paid for technology solutions made possible by broadband, BlackBerries, and iPhones that promised individualized-learning lesson plans for all.
A few superintendents threw up their hands and filed for early retirement. Some became college professors and part-time consultants. Others joined the world of online education. Their combined activities led to fewer and better superintendents (or whatever it is they’re called now in various locales).
While some educators saw these developments as a nightmare, more hailed them as a clear and bright vision for 2020. As we enjoy the fruits of their innovations, we must not forget, or diminish, what these educational forebears accomplished in the decade just ending.
We live in a country where ingenuity has led to realities such as wearable computers, the Segway, and chartered flights to space. Its education system, composed of an interdependent, flourishing network of contract, charter, and public schools, helps ensure that students’ minds remain as nimble as the American imagination.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Education World in 2020