Spencer Gardner is a member of Strong Towns and guest writer, sharing his thoughts on the American educational system with us today.


Spencer's family on their walk to school

Spencer's family on their walk to school

My oldest child started school this month. We are fortunate to live in a district that offers four-year-old pre-kindergarten classes, which means that she is getting a jump start on her education. More importantly for us, we live a short three-minute walk from her elementary school, so the transportation burden on our family has been minimal.

Our experience as first-time parents of a child in school has predictably elevated education to the forefront of my musings during my mental downtime. I’m surprised by how unenthusiastic I feel about the whole undertaking.

To be clear, I highly value education as a general concept. I am an avid reader and observer myself and hope to instill in my children a love for learning about the world around them in all disciplines. I’m also an unapologetic beneficiary of public education; I hold an advanced degree from one of the most highly regarded public universities in the world and grew up in the public school system of a state (Idaho) that, if current data are any indication, wouldn’t offer public school if it didn’t more or less have to.

My ambivalence stems largely from the lack of control I feel in the education that my children will receive during their time in public schools. This isn’t a quibble about her teacher’s responsiveness (we love her teacher), nor anything specific to her school. It’s more a feeling that, regardless of how we might feel about it, there’s really no alternative to the one-size-fits-all model employed in school districts across the nation. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, the vast majority of people in the United States can have any form of education they like as long as it’s mass-produced and public.

Like so much of our modern world, we seem to have boiled education down to a series of discrete inputs and outputs. This is convenient for making measurements, but I’m not convinced we have obtained any more wisdom about collectively raising productive, intelligent children in the last two centuries of public schools in the US than our distant ancestors. More to the point, if we can measure education we can make it more efficient; distill the handful of factors that have the greatest impact on test scores and optimize those. (Never mind that there’s an obvious conflict in defining the important inputs and also writing the tests that measure whether those inputs work.)

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs gives us one clue as to why education in the United States has been so slow to adapt to new realities. Although she was writing of growing economies, the same principles apply to the education system, whose end product is education services for children:

Is it not possible for the economy of a city to be highly efficient, and for the city also to excel at the development of new goods and services? No, it seems not. The conditions that promote development and the conditions that promote efficient production and distribution of already existing goods and services are not only different, in most ways they are diametrically opposed.

As the business of funding, regulating, and measuring education in the United States has shifted away from local communities, we may have gained in “efficient production” for the education of our youth but we have by definition lost the ability to innovate.

And we arrive at the crux of the issue. As the business of funding, regulating, and measuring education in the United States has shifted away from local communities, we may have gained in “efficient production” for the education of our youth but we have by definition lost the ability to innovate.

Despite this problem, I’m not convinced that simply eliminating federal and state oversight of education is any more palatable to my progressive sensitivities. As with so much of American governance, there are racial and socioeconomic concerns that underscore the shadow cast by Washington, DC. I’m convinced that my children would be fine under hyper-local control of schools. But I recognize that many millions of children would stand to be worse off.

I can’t claim to have an answer to this conundrum, but I strongly feel the solution must involve a shift away from inputs and outputs. I’m also convinced that new ideas cannot come from within the ranks of the existing system, despite the best intentions and valiant efforts of capable teachers and administrators.

A parting thought: When my daughter graduates high school, I hope she feels confident in her abilities to understand, communicate about, and observe the world around her. More importantly, I hope she understands that education is about so much more than homework and test scores. And I hope that she graduates under a school system that recognizes this too.

(Top photo by Jamie Taylor)


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About the author

Spencer Gardner is a transportation planner based in Madison, WI. He spends his spare time chasing his children, riding bikes, doing hobbyist computer programming, and very occasionally writing about urban issues. You can read his thoughts about transportation at http://roadsarelike.tumblr.com.