As the Berkeley neuroanthropologist Terance Deacon has written, “Knowing how something originated is often the best clue to how it works.” That is as true for diagnosing the health of America’s K-12 educational institutions as it is for most things—except that in this case many observers would rephrase the end of Deacon’s thought to read “how it doesn’t work.” That is another way of saying that for at least three and a half decades now, ever since international testing comparisons became widely conducted and the results known, American elites have considered the nation’s K-12 educational institutions, especially in science and math, in some kind of crisis. A host of Federal commissions has been empowered to diagnose the problems, and, partly as a result, over time large percentages of ordinary Americans have become persuaded that elementary education is broken.
Something, anyway, is broken. Ever since the Department of Education was established in 1979, Federal education policy has illustrated a bewildering mashup of contending constituencies: academic experts in high-status university schools of education, teachers unions, textbook publishers, major corporate-linked philanthropies, organizations of state education departments, and, in recent years, for-profit testing “experts” and educational computer software salesmen. Tensions among these constituencies, and between Federal, state, and local government, have been ceaseless, but we can nevertheless describe a basic pattern.
A variety of incremental approaches, mainly tested out at local levels, gave way about 30 years ago to calls for “systemic reform,” and the then-newly created Department of Education suggested to many that there was now a means to push through a nationwide reform. But thanks to union resistance, lack of funds and coordination, and the absence of agreement on what systematic reform actually meant, not much happened. Later on, large foundations gradually began to play a larger role in the education debate. One result of these efforts was the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, which focused on student testing and teacher evaluation to hold schools accountable for outcomes. This made political but not pedagogical sense. Greater accountability there might have been, but overall scores did not rise, and achievement disparities among various class and ethno-racial categories did not shrink.
The Obama Administration converted “no child left behind” into a “race to the top,” but without affecting the focus on testing and teacher accountability of the previous approach—in other words, a tinkering at the edges of what was already widely regarded as a futile reform. The new approach did yield some concrete changes, however. Through Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the major foundations—especially the Gates Foundation, with whom Duncan had worked when he ran the Chicago school system—essentially gained a lock on Federal policy. Many observers thought that was fine, since the deep pockets of these foundations could make up for the lack of adequate Federal and other government funds for education. Others, however, believed that private money that was, notwithstanding its charitable tax status, tied to corporate ventures was usurping public decision-making. Worse still, many also believed that the reform solutions these foundations were pushing—such as the emphasis on testing, the charter school movement, and voucher/school choice proposals—were misguided or even harmful.
At the foundations of these endless arguments over education reform policy were several polite fictions that few dared to call out. One such lie was that, when a cohort of five-year olds enters kindergarten, the students are all clean slates ready for educational imprinting—and that public schools could deliver equal opportunity with unequal tax bases. Thus, according to the logic of this untruth, if students at one school did not in fact perform as well as their peers, the schools were to blame, not the funding inequalities.
No one really believed this fiction, but few were willing to call it out. For many decades we have understood that a child’s early rearing at home affects that child’s ability, willingness, and readiness to learn throughout his or her future. Quite aside from the relative “word poverty” of some homes compared to others, differences in nutrition, emotional stability, public educational funding, and other factors make for anything but clean and equal slates, and the differences tend to cluster spatially such that schools in different places receive students of widely varying pre-school preparatory experiences. The United States government, however, cannot intervene directly into local public school funding inequities or into private family lives in order to prepare young children for school—and not very many want to change that. So policymakers, limited in their means of driving effective reform, have pretended that, for all practical purposes, these differences do not exist.
A second lie, having to do with the depressing data on the achievement gap, is less well recognized among education specialists but equally absent from public discussion of education policy. Over and above the differential early-childhood basis for learning readiness is the fact that over the past forty or so years the number of immigrant and first-generation students living below the poverty line in public schools has skyrocketed to levels not seen since the 1890s. Large numbers of Hispanic students, many of whose parents do not speak English as their first language or hold a college degree, are necessarily going to affect the data sets. Those numbers are going to make achievement gaps worse; so too will substantially increased numbers of emotionally fragile children in poor urban and rural populations, who often experience higher levels of stress and trauma. Schools will need to provide the wrap-around services that these students need to succeed and thrive. It is also worth noting, at the same time, that the data shows barely any achievement gap for the smaller numbers of immigrant and first-generation students from cultures that place a high value on education—mainly from East Asia and some communities in India, for example.
Of course, cultures do change, especially when they hit the road, and assimilation does happen; but it doesn’t happen very fast, and forty years is very fast in sociological terms. In some cases, challenges can also endure in minority communities due to a wide range of complicating social factors, for better or for worse as regards educational achievement, for centuries and more, even in alien environments. Yet review the dozens of articles on the achievement gap in the mainstream media over the past decade or so, and note how few of them mention immigration-related and other social factors affecting the demographic data. You will be fortunate to find a single one.
How can we begin to craft effective education policy when we cannot even bear to face reality? We also take for granted, for instance, the necessity of free, compulsory, and univeral public education for all Americans. We know, too, that virtually the entire world has followed suit during the 20th century, such that the international consensus on the fundamental right to free universal primary education is strong—even if many millions of children in poorer countries do not actually have access to education. Moreover, while local structures and curricular requirements vary, public school systems across the globe today also tend to share two common aspirations: to teach the core content and skills needed for participation in the workforce, and to serve as an agent of common socialization—what 19th-century Common School champion Horace Mann called the “balance-wheel of the social machinery.”1
Mann also described public school education as the “great equalizer of the conditions of men,” illustrating the belief (in the West, anyway) that free, compulsory, and univeral public education was intertwined with the fortunes of liberal democracy. Popular sovereignty required that the population apply reason to its decisions regarding the public realm, and education was the means to hone reason. It all goes back to a fourth-century monk named Pelagius, whose rather unorthodox views underlay the modern project that held education to be the spearhead of decisive social advance by filtering out bad behaviors and instilling good ones. But Pelagius’s view did not triumph in at least a part of the West until about 1,200 years later. What happened?
For most of human history, relatively widespread education was the rare exception, found only in such isolated instances as Sparta’s compulsory youth-training program, in first-century Talmud-Torah schools among Jews in Judea and Babylonia, in the Roman Republic and Empire before the fifth century, and perhaps in the 15th-century Aztec Triple Alliance. Not until the mid-16th century did a huge wave of compulsory education sweep across Europe, and it did so hand-in-hand with the Protestant Reformation and newly translated Bibles printed on the Gutenberg printing press. We can even date the beginning of broad compulsory education to the year: 1524, when Martin Luther published his letter, “To the Councillors of all Cities on German Territory,” which called on governing authorities to make education compulsory for all boys and girls, regardless of class.
Luther’s twin theological-political movement found a powerful engine in the establishment of these compulsory schools. Wherever Protestant beliefs spread, state-mandated education followed soon thereafter, with each reinforcing the other. Early Protestant compulsory schooling functioned as an institutional fulcrum, continually linking the theological to the political and vice versa. And in this dynamic theological-political system, “conscience” was the hinge. That is, it was Luther’s religious belief in the duty of each person to read Scripture in the light of reason and conscience that initially led to his call for government-mandated schools to teach literacy, which in turn led to a social consensus on the importance of conscience in the political arena as well, and so on in cyclical fashion.
Not only did the governing authorities legally mandate Protestant schools, but local parishioners were required to fund them and Church bishops to oversee them. In other words, an institution formed. Note in this arrangement the logical priority of religious belief to mass literacy. Compulsory education did not lead to the individual’s faith in equality, reason, and conscience; rather, a prior theological belief in the individual’s equality, reason, and conscience provided the raison d’être for the establishment of compulsory schools and the subsequent development of mass literacy.2 The use of scripture and other Protestant religious materials in these schools’ curricula then reinforced those initial beliefs, which further promoted compulsory Protestant education, and so on.
In other words, public education owes its origin, at least in Europe and by extension to the New World, to its theological-political roots. One may therefore wonder if the de-Protestantization of American culture—through some combination of demographic and attitudinal change—might affect the underlying basis of support for public education. What if the American majority were no longer to believe in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” referenced in the Declaration of Independence? Would they also recognize that, by relinquishing that belief, they were simultaneously surrendering the grounds that have historically been invoked to justify “equality” and the “right to education,” as well as all other universal human “rights” they might claim or affirm?
To be sure, original purposes can be joined by and eventually displaced by other purposes as time passes. But the possibility cannot be entirely discounted that severing the bonds between Protestant scripturalism, on the one hand, and the egalitarian ethos and, ultimately, liberal democracy, on the other, may put the latter at risk—and may damage the status of public education as well. The possibility does not contradict the universalism inherent in Christianity generally and in Protestantism in particular, which extends a theological conviction about religious universality to a conviction about the potential, supposedly secular universality of a particular political culture—namely, liberal democracy. This is not a rarity: As Carl Schmitt understood in 1922, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” But that latter universalism is, to be frank, more aspirational than it is grounded in social science.
The theological origin of public education provides the backdrop for only part of the American public school ethos. The road from 1524 in Germany to the 18th-century founding of the United States and beyond has its curves and detours. For example, the American Founders sharply disagreed about the role of government in funding education. All serious educational institutions at the time were denominational. Some of the Founders supported giving public funds for education to such schools. But others, led by Jefferson and Madison, both channeling Locke (and in a way Luther himself), opposed it as a violation of the wall of separation between church and state, and as an affront against the free exercise of conscience. In 1784 their view won out. They were for church schools and for a public role for religion generally, but they insisted that parishioners, not citizens, foot the bill.
Ever since, the courts have wrestled with the religion clauses in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And the reason the matter has never been finally settled is that it cannot be. On the one hand, everyone knows—or knew—that the basic institutions of American democratic government are rooted in the Reformation as a twinned theological-political phenomenon, it being understood that the Reformation and the Enlightenment were also twinned both in time and partial disposition.3 On the other hand, it was deemed unwise to “establish” any one denomination over the others, and the principle of religious liberty and tolerance so dear to America’s many “dissenter” religious communities put the idea beyond the pale. So the basis of free, compulsory, and universal public education was vividly Protestant but could not lawfully be embedded as such. Hence the eternally unsolvable problem.
As a result of the original impasse, the reach of public education actually suffered in the United States after the Revolution. It was not until the end of the 1840s that two overarching utilitarian considerations began to sway national opinion in favor of state funding for the universal, nonsectarian “Common Schools” championed by Horace Mann.
First, the industrial revolution created an economic need, and eventually also a military need, for skilled labor at various levels. Normal schools for teachers were also founded to produce standardized, methodological teaching practices. And second, the large-scale arrival of mostly poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants during this period diluted the dominant Protestant homogeneity of American society. Against this backdrop, Mann argued that universal public education was the best way to transform the nation’s newer “unruly children” into effective workers and citizens.
So it was that, in 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to require basic education for all children, a law not unlike earlier ones it had passed in the 1640s, except that it now provided state funding for universal non-sectarian public education. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 not only required Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment, but also to implement state-funded public school systems. Then, in 1892, amid an even vaster influx of non-Protestant immigrants, the National Education Association formed the Committee of Ten in order to streamline a standard national curriculum and educational philosophy. They developed what came to be known as the traditional school structure and curriculum that has remained largely in place for American schools to this day—with a resistance to change that many reformers have found maddeningly “sticky.”
Ever since, the Committee of Ten system has functioned to socialize all Americans to as much of a common public creed as possible through the vehicle of civic education, and to teach both basic skills and prepatory discipline as key elements in preparing a labor force aligned with a modern industrial economy. We can debate how well the civic education piece has been going in the past half century. But what we really need to think hard about is whether America’s K-12 system, as currently designed, is well aligned with current, not to speak of future, labor force needs.
One urgent question for the future of public education is how schools can best prepare students to meet the demands of a globalized, increasingly internet-based economy. But an even more daunting one concerns the prospect that the combination of information technology and artificial intelligence will make vast numbers of jobs, perhaps even most traditional jobs, disappear, as well as change the nature of many of the jobs that are left or are yet to be created.
This raises a question that American public education as an institution has never had to face: not how to educate people, but why? If one day in the not-so-distant future, an increasingly large percentage of traditional jobs can be performed, and performed better, by a small cohort of highly specialized human and robotic workers, could this not only lead to decreased spending on public education but even to disbanding schools as we know them? And pardon the afterthought, but what happens not just to work under such circumstances, but to the power of the Western narrative itself, stretching from from Genesis and Ecclesiastes to the Lockean “labor value” creation tale and the Protestant work ethic? What will happen to the very stories that make us, as a culture, who we are?
It would be nice to think that we Americans can take the measure of this challenge, and plan for the massive dislocations that IT/AI innovation portends in a way that respects the dignity of each citizen. It would be nice to think that a new political basis for public education can be devised, one perhaps less instrumental than the older one. But with the theological belief in the inherent value of free, universal education in eclipse, and with the IT/AI revolution removing the instrumental necessity for a wide-scale national workforce, on what would our nice thoughts be based? Mega-corporate enlightened self-interest? Heaven help us. Yes, free, basic public education currently enjoys a high level of both national and international legal protection as a “universal human right,” but it is less clear that this foundation will remain “self-evident” in a post-IT/AI and post-Protestant future.
21st-Century American Schools
Even if it does remain self-evident, we still have some heavy lifting to do. Consider that with dramatic advances in cognitive neuroscience, education technology, and personalized learning, we should, in theory, have already made highly effective, individualized instruction available to all students with internet access, regardless of income or demographics (not to say that solipsistic student-computer interfacing lacks problems of its own). In addition to a rich abundance of free, online, anytime-anywhere resources, several new school models also offer innovative, alternative learning environments. In addition to traditional public, private, and religious schools, new public charter schools, micro-schools, and for-profit schools are experimenting with a wide range of evidence-based best practices in order to restructure and individualize instruction, supercharge engagement and relevance, and provide a nurturing, student-centered experience that best meets their learning needs.
So we should be optimistic, right? We might be if these advances were being systematically structured, brought to scale, and deployed in a consistent manner. But they’re not. The battling constituencies I mentioned in the opening of this essay are preventing any of that from happening. Besides, we have to remember that the challenge of the near future could well be qualitatively different from that of the past, and there is not much to be gained from bringing public K-12 education into the late 20th century only for it to be overwhelmed by the realities of the mid-21st.
But the choices are ours to make. As we make them, we would be well advised to keep in mind a few general principles, which we might also think of as three challenges with myriad subordinate policy choices: (1) to ensure public education equity; (2) to plan strategically for the future of education in a post-AI world; and (3) to finally replace the Committee of Ten’s 19th-century school model with evidence-based educational best practices that can allow us to better meet the first two challenges.
Challenge 1: Ensure Public Education Equity
The first practical step to reviving our ailing public schools is to reaffirm our national faith in the self-evident truth that all human beings are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. Belief always precedes action, and this belief provides both the catalyst and sine qua non for the institution of public education, as it does for all of America’s core institutions. If we truly believe that, as a corollary of this idea, all children deserve the basic education that will allow them to exercise their reason and participate in a democratic society, then we as a society will be more likely to make the policy decisions and engage in the school reform that is needed to provide each and every student with the evidence-based best practices in education that they need to succeed and thrive in the 21st century.
We face several obstacles on the road to public school equity, but none that are insurmountable, politically or otherwise. First is uneven local tax bases, and with that, uneven facilities, resources, and teacher quality. Second is persisting racial and cultural prejudice. Third, related, is the plague of belief in an array of social and biological determinisms. Fourth is low teacher salaries, which make it extremely hard to attract quality teachers in an age where women, who have traditionally dominated K-12 classrooms, have vastly more professional opportunities open to them than was the case four or five decades ago. And fifth is a widening achievement gap turned into an academic arms race, which is a dynamic that is not suitable for arriving at successful solutions.
Challenge Two: Plan for the Future
If the number of traditional human jobs declines in an AI-suffused world (and according to some experts not necessarily be replaced by new job growth), then we must strategically redesign school now to help students develop the skills and habits of mind they will need to navigate that brave new world. And even without the benefit of a crystal ball, we can safely assume that our human progeny will still need to acquire new knowledge, skills, and understanding in order to address them. Thus, in addition to mastering an ever-evolving, modular array of skills and literacies, we must also train students how to grow the power of their own minds, and to think critically, creatively, and collaboratively. This kind of educational preparation will help our children to actively choose—and design—a better future for all of us, rather than passively allowing someone (or something) else to choose it for us.
Challenge Three: Implement Evidence-Based Best Practices
In order to meet the urgent demands of these first two challenges, the entire K-12 educational system must be reoriented around the new sun of student-centered learning. Advances in cognitive neuroscience have demonstrated why this student-centric model is both necessary and effective for 21st-century learners. Yet, despite the fact that most educators have theoretically embraced this Copernican Revolution in teaching, and that $18 billion is spent annually on professional development to implement it, 50 million American students continue to return year after year to K-12 classrooms that still operate on the Committee of Ten’s 19th-century model.
By definition, personalized learning will look different to account for each student’s individual strengths, challenges, and other age-appropriate, cultural, and social-emotional needs. But there are some key elements of good learning design that we can look to in order to help create high-quality learning environments for all students. For example, since neuroscientists like Mary Helen Immordino-Yang have proven that there is no learning without emotion, the first job of any teacher must be to build trust and cultivate a positive mentoring relationship with students. The best teachers have always done this intuitively, but we now have empirical evidence that demonstrates why all teachers must lay this critical foundation in order for learning to take root and flourish. This is also why teachers must nurture students’ individual passions, voice, and choice, and help them to engage with and find relevance in new content knowledge, questions, and challenges. Teaching students to ask good questions is therefore more important than teaching them how to find true but often trivial answers. These key ingredients help to make learning meaningful, to go deep, and to become encoded in long-term memory.
Researchers have also demonstrated that intelligence is not a fixed number on an IQ bell curve but rather, as Scott Barry Kaufman describes it in Ungifted, “the dynamic interplay of our abilities and engagement to achieve our desired goals.” Teachers must therefore make students explicitly aware of the power of brain plasticity, and the ability of their minds to grow their own intelligence with sustained effort and focus. Here brain science also dovetails well with the classic American dream, since it finally offers empirical evidence that we can indeed become the kind of people we want to be and achieve the goals we desire, if we put in the time and effort needed to get there (a timeless phenomenon that educational gurus currently refer to as “growth mindset” and “grit”).
Teachers also need to be trained in the evidence-based, multisensory programs that we know work best for teaching math and literacy—such as the systematic Orton Gillingham approach to reading instruction and Stan Dehaene’s games to grow number sense and math fluency. All young mammals learn best when their hands and bodies and brains are engaged simultaneously in exploring and mastering their environment. Schooling and education are not synonyms, and real education has to involve doing rather than just reading or listening. Sitting still listening to talking-head teachers has to be the worst possible way to teach young humans anything of value, yet that still defines what most K-12 students are subjected to most of the time.
New financial, digital, economic, environmental, and health and wellness literacies must be added to the curriculum as well. And students having reached a certain age should be entrusted with a transparent scope and sequence of all the competencies that they need to master, so that they can share in the ownership of their learning path and their progression along it.
Rather than teaching isolated subject content in the middle and high school years, teachers should instead creatively engage students in interdisciplinary STEM and Humanities projects. Arts integration helps students of all ages to access other modalities for learning. When creativity is embedded into an assignment, it can be leveraged as a powerful tool for differentiation, mastery, and assessment. Essential questions help to inspire wonder, critical thinking, deep literacy, synthesis, and creative problem solving. Flexible learning spaces allow freedom of movement for individual, small group and large group work, as well as for presentations and public speaking. The campus should also be extended beyond the brick and mortar school walls to include local and global digital communities, with rich opportunities for further research, apprenticeship, and entrepreneurship in areas of interest.
Looming social challenges on the one hand, combined with advances in education neuroscience and digital technology, on the other hand, provide both the urgent incentive and the means to overhaul K-12 education from the ground up. We know what works. What we need is the national will to finally redesign the K-12 educational system as a whole, so that students can better reach their 21st-century professional and personal goals, and help to make a better tomorrow for all of us.
1Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education” (1848), in Mann, Lectures and Annual Reports on Education:1796-1859.
2It is possible, even likely, that Luther’s belief in the futility of Catholic ritual to reach the soul, the conscience, of the true inner person came about as a result of the interiority enabled by his own deep literacy.
3Not all sectarian divisions within the Reformation were equally friendly to Enlightenment precepts: Anglicans were far more so than Calvinists, for example. Indeed, the encounter between Protestantism and liberalism has been, and remains, endlessly intricate and fascinating. But further analysis thereof would serve no good purpose here.