I recently had the great opportunity to hear a talk from Michael Sorrell, a Duke alum and one of the members of Forbes 50 Greatest Leaders. He spoke about his work turning around Paul Quinn College and the creation of the urban college model, which continues to provide opportunities to black youth in the Dallas area. This got me thinking about the severe lack of innovation in education in the United States, and how we expect decades-old educational structures to provide adequate training for a rapidly evolving world. That will be the topic of this Commentary piece, as we go through the history of education in America and talk about where we should be headed in the future.
There is a great article written in Psychology Today that provides an overview of the history of education. Logically, the overarching theme seems to be that education has adapted depending upon what is fruitful and necessary at the time. The author mentions the creation of agriculture as one of these turning points in history, when knowledge about farming not only drove change in society, but also subsequently changed the duties and responsibilities of children to learn about how to support the family. The author goes on to paint a picture of how education evolved in line with societal and technological changes, which is something to keep in mind throughout our discussion.
Turning to America, we can see that early education was focused on religious teachings, but there was still inequality in education throughout the colonies. Public education was starting to become a priority, but since the colonies were intrinsically different in their societal structure, differences in educational systems arose. Massachusetts was more focused around state-run public schools, but the vast majority of colonies (like New York and Pennsylvania) had a greater diversity of religious backgrounds and geographic sparsity, so local schooling was more common.
After America gained independence, Congress did not do much to change this local schooling infrastructure. It took the voices of political leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Rush to provide the impetus for national public education , but even then it was not until the 19th century that a public educational system was established. This is another parallel to recognize: even with the push of political leaders, it took significant time to establish a public education system, and even then there were issues that needed to be worked out. Throughout the nineteenth century, a lot of the current educational structures were put in place (ex. standardized systems, grades, etc), and this was only done through education reform advocates like Horace Mann (Source).
What does this all mean, other than the fact that there haven’t been many new improvements to our educational system since the nineteenth century? There seem to be three main themes:
1) Proper education evolves with the societal and technological advances of the time period.
2) Education reform starts with the advocacy of political and scientific leaders.
3) Even then, change from the status quo is difficult, so an educated community needs to lead the charge.
This last point is of utmost importance for the times we currently live in. Leaders like Michael Sorrell are working hard to inject innovation into our educational structures, but it ultimately falls upon us to fight for this change and vote in political leaders who will advocate on our behalf. In order to continue to adapt our education (in accordance with the first theme above), we need a data-driven approach that is focused on meeting the needs of all ends of the educational spectrum. By fighting for this change across all three themes of educational reform, we can be the spark for igniting the change and ensuring that education in America starts to be a dynamic field, instead of its current static, bloated state.