American public education has always had the goal of helping to both maintain and to recreate a healthy democracy. Individual students are helped to learn the values of American society as well as ways they can be personally successful and contribute to the success of their nation. Sometimes the emphasis has been on the economic health of the country, sometimes the political health, and sometimes the technological health of our society.
This writer's grandfather attended school during a time when most American children lived on farms. In a 1995 letter to a group of elementary children, he described going to school as he had experienced it.
During his days in school, curriculum delivery was centered around the recitations. It was considered "...the focal center towards which all school activities converge" (The Methods Company, 1918 p200). Basically this was when the teacher used a combination of conversation, lecture, and questioning to teach new information while tying it to previous lessons and preparing students for future lessons. Its design consisted of four parts: "...the introduction, the development, the drill, and the summary" (The Methods Company, 1918 p201). Its usefulness was to impart selected knowledge from the teacher to the student, this at a time when "graded schools" were just making their presence known.
The introduction of the graded school, in which students were separated by age into sequential groups or classes (know then as classification), was considered the most modern and scientific approach to education. It created a model through which children progressed in efficient steps throughout their education, which, for most children near the beginning of the twentieth century, ended before the eighth grade. In 1918 only about six percent of the children entering elementary schools in the United States reached the eighth grade (The Methods Company, 1918 p79). States published books outlining the curriculum, including content, that students were to learn in each grade. This lock-step approach to structuring education has been termed the factory model of schooling. This design brought with it more than the arrangement of students around an age-based curriculum.
Throughout this country's industrial period, a time in which the majority of working adults held blue collar jobs, the factory model of education worked relatively well. It helped maintain the health of our democracy, in general providing students with the skills and values necessary for success in the society of that age. It must be noted that during this time, from the beginning of the century through its middle, more and more children attended and completed higher levels of education than ever before.
As our nation has moved out of its industrial age, new skills become important for individual success as well as for our nation's economic and technological health. This transitional period has of course found its reflection in the educational arena. Pressure from the economic sector as well as the political sector has been brought to bear on educators. The cry is for higher standards, perhaps what is really meant is different standards.
Curriculum is currently changing as we pass through this age of transition. The aspect of educational life that is reflective of society is being asked to catch up with what is current. The aspect of education that is a driver of society is being drawn along by representatives through the use of standards and high-stakes testing. As this happens, the curriculum, the structure of schooling, and the role of the teacher goes through a process of change.
As always, students will need to gain the ability to think, to use knowledge they have acquired to solve problems, and to attain a level of wisdom appropriate for their maturity. Although memorizing the multiplication tables will likely never go out of style, the emphasis of curriculum will move away from factual knowledge to conceptual understanding and to skills needed to locate and use knowledge for any variety of purposes.
The structure of public education will also change. In 1928 it was recognized "...that at least a certain part of every child's day in school should be given over to the child's own plans and purposes, and that an opportunity should be made in this period for help in carrying out such plans and purposes" (Moore, Betzner, and Lewis, 1927-28 p10). In the twenty-first century, after education has moved through our present transition, the barriers to individual pacing for students will be lifted. Students' "own plans and purposes" will again be important within the framework of educational road maps (where our current standards will lead us toward). Technology's promise of open communication and dialogue will help to decentralize our districts' schools. Virtual classrooms will allow small groups of students access to courses that may be initiated from anywhere in the world. This is already being done with both public and private programs such as: Internet Academy based in Federal Way, Washington; E-school! International Inc. based in Iowa City, Iowa; CyberSchool from Eugene, Oregon; Florida High School, a statewide online school operated by school districts in Orange and Alachua counties; and Willoway CyberSchool in Reinholds, Pennsylvania (Zehr, 1999). The move over the past fifty years to centralize students into ever larger schools in order to efficiently and economically offer more classes will no longer be an issue. Schools will once again be community or neighborhood based geographically and physically being comprised of much smaller student bodies, thus supporting closer connections between students and adults.
Teachers in this new structure will still be important, their job description will simply change. A recent Public Agenda poll asked, "What is the most important thing public schools need in order to help students learn?" The top response by far was "good teachers" (Pepper and Rowland, 2000). What the people polled in this survey meant by "good teachers" varied, however it might be summed up as follows: knowledgeable managers of students, ideas, and learning experiences that help develop compassionate links between all of these elements.
In the future the teacher may lose much of the student management aspect of the job, at least in the way we currently view it. Students will not be limited by age or geographical location to learning opportunities, instead they will likely be engaged in small fluid learning groups organized around specific educational needs or interests. The learning experiences that best match their group will be available through the use of technology, a technology that will seem as invisible as a pencil is today, it will simply be a tool of learning.
In 1959 West Virginia Governor Cecil H. Underwood submitted his predictions for the future of education to the NEA. These were placed in a time capsule that was opened 50 years later. His predictions for the dawn of the twenty-first century sound similar to those many educators now foresee for the future of the mid-twenty-first century.
From his viewpoint at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Education Secretary Riley is making similar predictions. He stated in his Seventh Annual State of American Education Address that "In the 21st century, public education will be different. Education will be more individualized yet more community based. Public education will be less about a fixed location and fixed schedule, and much more about learning anytime and anywhere. Technology or E-learning will penetrate every aspect of American education and change it." He continues, "In the future, schools will be more fluid, teachers more adaptable and flexible, and students will be more accountable as the task of learning becomes theirs" (Riley, 2000).
Secretary Riley seems to build on Governor Underwood's predictions, in many ways echoing his hopes fifty years later. Perhaps we will one day reach this idyllic state of education, however, in the meantime we must make the most of our journey. As T. S. Eliot has written, "The journey not the arrival matters" (Running Press, 1994).
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