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NEXT: A Visionary History – US Public Education

David Staley David Staley NEXT: A Visionary History – US Public Education
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What follows is not a prediction. It is a plausible scenario written in the form of a “history from the future.” The scenario is written as if the year were 2035…

The year is 2035, and public schooling in the U.S. has been redesigned along the model of the Agora school in Roermond, in the Netherlands. 

Students at the Agora school range in age from 12 to 18, and do not follow a set curriculum or even take prescribed courses. They learn by engaging in projects themed by what interests them. 

“We give children the opportunity to play,” says manager Rob Houben, “Because when children are playing with something they get interested. And then you don’t have to teach, and you don’t have to police them either.” 

A typical day has students working in groups on projects that might occur in the school’s wood workshop, metal workshop, textiles room, kitchen or computer room. After a lunch break, students are provided with a quiet period, where they are invited to read or think. Then, more group projects until the end of the day.

By law, students must know certain content knowledge. But this knowledge can be obtained in any number of ways: that is, a math concept need not be learned in a mathematics-based project but as a result of some other project of the student’s interest that employs the mathematical concept. And there are no standardized tests as such. Student progress is tracked by an app called Egodact—designed by three Agora students.  

An observer unfamiliar with the pedagogical philosophy of the Agora school would see only chaos, not students in classrooms lined up in rows listening to a teacher at the front of the room. Houben says that the Agora School is “a blend of a university (where you have knowledge), a Buddhist monastery (where you can think), a theme park (where you can play) and a communal marketplace (where you can trade and swap things).” 

Beginning in Ohio and spreading across the U.S., the Agora school model became the blueprint for the revitalization of public education in the United States.  

The transformation began in Dayton, where Dayton Public Schools adopted the Agora model for high school and eventually for middle schools. The decision was contentious, but a newly-elected board of education—allied with local businesses—adopted the innovative pedagogical philosophy. The Ohio Department of Education had to approve of this change, of course, and this was not at all easy or assumed. 

The Biden Administration Education Department formally ended policies that emphasize high-stakes testing. The era of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” was finally at an end and replaced with a policy that places primacy on project-based learning, making it easier for the Ohio Department of Education to approve of the Dayton changes. The DeWine administration—and the Husted Administration after that—were enthusiastic supporters.

Dayton was representative of an emerging national trend where Millennials—specifically Millennial-aged parents–began to assume predominant leadership positions on local school boards and in educational bureaucracies. These new leaders were prepared to act on new, innovative ideas.  

The Dayton Experiment proved popular, and soon school systems across Ohio—mostly in cities—began to imitate what was happening in Dayton. When the Columbus City Schools adopted the Agora Model (followed soon after by the Cincinnati and Cleveland districts), most urban districts across the state had adopted the new method, and Ohio had become the national leader for public school reform.

As noted in the Dayton example, businesses became directly involved in the service of public education. These companies were drawn to the project-based pedagogy, and saw the benefits for workforce development. Businesses had long been making demands on the public education system, but as the Dayton case demonstrated, these businesses were ready to make substantive financial contributions, and began offering apprenticeships as “projects” students could pursue.    

Moreover, there had been a major shift in public perception about the state of public education and what should be done about it. An otherwise polarized society—including even ideas about public education—nevertheless coalesced around the idea of the project-based, self-discovery model represented by Agora. The shift in public perception came as a surprise to most observers: the shift in public perception was as—relatively—sudden as was the shift in public attitudes toward gay marriage. 

Americans were watching with increasing alarm the metrics that ranked Chinese education at the top of the world standings, with U.S. educational success dropping further and further down the scale. The concerns about declining educational standards would be part of a general reckoning that the end of American Exceptionalism was at hand, leading to a new kind of Sputnik moment.  

Such a rapid change in the past might have been met by stiff opposition from teacher’s unions. But starting around 2027, many states began passing legislation that severely curtailed the power of unions, not unlike the way public employee unions were weakened. Local schools were able to affect the changes they wanted with little resistance from teachers (many of whom, it must be said, were largely in favor of the new approach, if somewhat wary of being “relegated” to the role of guide on the side).

The success of the Agora model in Dayton and the other cities in Ohio meant that cities across the country began to emulate “The Ohio Model,” first in smaller municipalities, and then larger cities, such as Chicago, Seattle and Phoenix. By 2035, the Agora model is not universal, but has come to represent roughly 70% of public education across the country.

This national movement was accelerated by the intervention of billionaires, many of whom shifted their attention to reform of public education as their latest “moonshot.” These billionaires gave up on funding junkets to Mars, their philanthropy and investing given over to Agora-izing public education. Where earlier generations of Americans benefited from Carnegie libraries, a new generation of Americans benefited from MacKenzie Scott schools.

The spread of The Ohio Model occurred simultaneously with a change in teacher education. Education schools across the country begin to teach the new philosophy, meaning the next generation of teachers were trained in the project-learning approach. By 2035, apprentice teachers are no longer trained or certified to specialize in 7-12 Language Arts or Middle school mathematics, instead being educated as broad-minded generalists, to better mentor students who are following their passions wherever and through what ever disciplines that might take them.  

As this scenario demonstrates, many significant cultural and political changes will need to transpire before public education could be so radically altered.   

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcastCreativeMornings Columbus and president of Columbus Futurists.

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