I spent the winter break visiting my sister in Point Reyes. Point Reyes is a small, rural town on a beautiful peninsula north of San Francisco. Miles of untouched sea-shore greet cow pastures, redwood groves, marsh, and gently wrinkled hills. The town has a small elementary and middle school where my sister teaches environmental science and my nephews get straight A's. My oldest son Ben compared the courses he's taking at his school in Port Washington, NY with the courses his cousin takes in Point Reyes and noticed a significant gap - up to 2 years in math and science. Now its worth noting that my son doesn't always get straight A's in those classes in Port Washington and so we discount some of his analysis with self-preserving bias.
But looking at the difference in curriculum between this small rural school on the West Coast and the large surburban school on the East, one is tempted to ask "are people on the East Coast really smarter than the west?"
The answer: Of course not. But the way education resources are allocated via public monopoly creates a distortion that makes it seem so. Education resources are distributed on a state level through the seemingly elastic supply of teachers to student demand using fixed ratios of how many warm bodied students fill seats in classrooms. That means that small communities with low populations often get fewer educational resources than large communities. In an industrial society, which is the one that created this educational system, this formula is adequate because it provides basic levels of education to a large population whose primary productive value is measured in skilled and un-skilled manual labor.
But in a Knowledge Society, where productive capacity is measurable in intellectual value creation - this formula is dismally inadequate. A warm body in a chair is not an accurate articulation of intellectual needs for learning. Smart kids in California should have the same educational resource opportunity as smart kids in NY. But the State has created primary education as a monopoly prerogative. It isn't that the sovereign control is wrong. Its that the model is not changing fast enough to meet the needs of a Knowledge Society.
In a Knowledge Society, every student in every school is a customer in an educational market that should be designed to cater learning to that student's individual learning potential and style. The Educational System would provide real-time transparency on student learning demands and fulfillment so that parents can actively evaluate how well the Educational System is meeting the needs of each Student Customer.
Today, even in a school like Port Washington HS, we parents only get mid-term progress reports, term report cards, and SAT scores to evaluate our child's progress in School from a teacher normative perspective. That is, we get to evaluate standardized grading done from the system as a reflection of our child's educational performance. But we don't get to evaluate how well each teacher is performing in terms of educating our children, which school policies have positive or negative impacts on our children, or other factors. Its a very recent innovation that teachers provide course materials on websites at all, and most are rarely available or responsive via email or phone.
As a parent, its extremely frustrating to confront the Educational System with complaints about a teacher. Evidence is hard to accumulate and it always comes down to our word against theirs - in which case the teacher normally wins. This isn't a system designed to produce the best outcome for each student. Its a system designed to produce predictable outcomes for all students, even if a predictable percentage of them drop out at 16.
In a Knowledge Society, every drop-out at 16 carries a huge economic burden for the rest of society because that person has handicapped their potential intellectual value creation for many years if not for life. Even Students who only finish 4 years in University will be educated to a level that fails to match their Knowledge potential.
But if we had more information about what are children are learning, how they are learning it, and how each of their incremental projects, tests, and homework assignments contributed to their overall "grade," we parents could play a far more informed and intelligent role in the development of our children at home before and after school.
And if the school budget system were also calibrated on individual learning instead of warm bodies in seats, we parents as citizens might have more levers to force change in recalcitrant Educational Systems that are not meeting the needs of their Student Customers.
The Nation State as the primary supplier of primary education 1-12 needs new market mechanisms to meet the needs of the Knowledge Society in the 21st Century. There should not be a discernible curriculum difference in the learning opportunity provided in public schools West Coast to East, North to South except the capacity of students to learn and the willingness of parents to monitor their progress.
I hope someday to have the power to choose school board members based on individual report cards of academic achievement of every student in terms of their ability to learn and the System's ability to meet their needs.
That day should not be far off if we hope to succeed as a nation in the Knowledge Society.