Despite Public Education’s Gains, a Widening Cultural Lag Remains

Over the past few years, the debate over the state of K-12 public education has intensified. Some have made the claim that public education is in a state of crisis for reasons such as crumbling school buildings, uneven quality and availability of teaching staff and rising poverty rates among students and disengaged parents. In response, policymakers have championed new policy ideas in search of a path forward to “fix” public education.

Despite the challenges, graduation rates have reached an all — time high, and more students are entering colleges and universities. According to the Department of Education, 82 percent of high school seniors graduated in the 2013 — 2014 school year. In fall 2015, some 20.2 million students are expected to attend US colleges and universities, constituting an increase of about 4.9 million since fall 2000. So what seems to be the problem?

The challenge, I believe, lies in a growing recognition of a widening lag between the structure of the economy and society at large, which is adding pressure and taxing the capacity of the system of public education to adapt to the new demands of our increasingly complex economy.

To this end, it may be useful to look at the challenges facing the public highway and transportation infrastructure system, with attention to the purposes it served when it was first built. In this analysis, we can also look at how this informs the issue at hand.

The public freeway/highway system was originally designed for domestic use. It connected the states, allowed easy travel for commuters, significantly reduced the time and cost associated with the flow of local and interstate commerce and improved the movement of the military, emergency and other related traffic. It benefited business and government to a significant degree and made it more convenient for consumers to get around.

In 2016, the freeway/highway system is clogged with much higher volumes of commuter traffic and a rapidly expanding number of larger commercial trucks moving goods in and out of markets that connect the various production centers around the world. The freeway system was built for a 1950s economy. However, the primary, initial intent of the freeway/highway system has stretched beyond its original purpose and does not readily meet the vastly expanding requirements associated with local, regional, national and global demographic and commercial transformation.

The most visible economic trends that are outpacing the public education system have unfolded in two distinguishable but integrally linked areas: digital tools and robotics, and globalization. These two structural changes in the economy have introduced new conditions and added a new standard of expectations in the delivery of services.

As a stark illustration of what we’re up against: K-12 public education still remains largely a localized, paper-based system. Many school districts’ internal processes still rely on the large-scale use of paper. In response, federal, state and district leaders have called for a piecemeal retrofitting of public schools (e.g., via student computers, computer programming and common core curricula) to make them more responsive to the provision of instruction that preparesa workforce for the new realities of the complex economy that is increasingly globally connected. It is not clear, however, whether public school systems (as they are currently organized) can keep up with demands from workers and industry alike. The situation points to what we call a “cultural lag” between the rapid pace of scientific and technological change in terms of how goods and services are produced and moved on the one hand, and the readiness of the school system and families to adapt to help keep the system moving smoothly.

Companies like Amazon have leveraged the resources of the internet to raise the standard of expectations in order tomove goods and services on a global scale to achieve a 24-hour “click to get” delivery cycle. By contrast, the publiceducation schedule remains a five-day a week, 8 am to 4 pm operation. It is the lag between the “instant gratification world” and the public education system’s inability to deliver services at the same rate of expectation that is creating agreater loss of faith in the public education system as a whole. A US News and World Report article, “The Education-Technology Revolution Is Coming” echoes this critical point:

In the publishing industry, Borders had difficulty meeting changing customer preferences in the digital era. While they struggled to adapt, Amazon established an open platform that gave users more control, letting readers buy and share and discover on their own terms. It let them go mobile with the Kindle and Kindle apps.

Education institutions are now grappling with the same challenge Borders faced: how to connect with savvier and more discerning consumers who have more options today than they did even a few years ago. These consumers — these active learners — have different expectations for their education experience. Administrators must be aware that active learners are willing to go elsewhere if they don’t feel their expectations are being met.

Although the US News and World Report article makes the case that students have other options when schools cannot offer more digitally-driven services in curricula and instruction, this may not be the case for less-resourced students that rely solely on the public education system as their path toward a future career.

The growing cultural lag between the economy and public education is not only undermining the faith of consumers of public education services, but also is raising concerns among industry leaders as to the availability of a skilled workforce in the US in the coming future. Notably, CEO Jonas Prising of ManpowerGroup — a global workforce staffing firm — points out that:

Technology is evolving faster than ever, changing the skills needed for jobs and shortening the life cycle of those skills. We are also seeing a bifurcation of the workforce — those with in — demand skills versus those with high-supply skills. Yet, too little has changed in these ten years.

While more public investment is always welcome in our most precious resource — our children — the crux of the challenge rests upon restructuring an educational system to make it more responsive to meet the increasing expectations in the delivery of services it is responsible for providing. With the needs of workers and industry changing so fast to be competitive, one wonders how the current model of K-12 education can transition fast enoughto keep up or whether it can keep up at all.