Human-Centered Lifelong Education

What are reasonable aspirations for a human-centered lifelong education system?  In Beyond Quick Fixes (Oxford, 2024), I propose a ten-year, multi-stage plan to transform education in the US.  The plan includes five elements:

  • Starting Point (Status Quo), High costs & poor outcomes
  • Baseline Initial Success, National graduation standards
  • Leveraging Baseline, National curriculum standards for STEM and STW
  • Innovative Leaps, Elimination of reliance on property taxes
  • Ultimate Success, Integrated delivery system

The US has among the highest per student costs of education, compared to other OECD countries.  We have among the poorest educational outcomes compared to these countries.  This is due to enormous variability in K-12, which is controlled by 14,000 independent school boards and relies on property tax revenues to provide the lion’s share of school budgets.  The value of the housing being taxed has a huge impact on what resources are available.

Each school board decides on the K-12 curriculum, how it is delivered, and associated budgets.  There is great pressure to promote and graduate every student.  However, what does a high school diploma imply?  What can employers and colleges expect from these graduates?

The first step towards lifelong education should be national standards for high school graduation, perhaps assessed by externally managed testing services.  This is the way Advanced Placement course exams are managed.  Jay Matthews of the Washington Post has discussed this at length.

The next step is national curriculum standards.  This is particularly important for students aspiring to pursue STEM majors in college.  This would also benefit those entering the “skilled technical workforce” (STW) via integrated high school and community college programs.  Such programs lead to well-paying jobs that require technical knowledge and skills but not a BS degree.  These jobs often pay double what a freshly-minted non-STEM college graduate earns.

The elimination of reliance on property taxes would enable meeting the graduation and curriculum standards.  A mix of state and federal monies could fund this, as done in other countries.  Tax revenues, as always, would provide the funds, but the taxation mechanisms would likely differ substantially.

The eventual outcome is an integrated education delivery system.  All high school students would meet the same criteria, enabled by fully-funded programs.  These programs would differ for STEM, humanities, arts, and the skilled technical workforce, but all would produce graduates capable of successfully moving to the next stage of their careers.

Speaking of careers, the integrated education delivery system also needs to provide ongoing education for those well along in their careers, including those who seek to change career paths.  High quality online programs may fill this need, as excellent offerings have emerged in recent years. 

We have mapped the post-secondary education pipeline in the US.  Two transition probabilities most affect the STEM talent flow, the probability a K-12 student graduates “STEM ready,” and the probability a college student enrolled in a STEM major graduates with a STEM degree  In the US, these probabilities are 0.16 and 0.50, respectively.  Thus, only 8% of K-12 students enter the STEM-related workforce.

The performance of the K-12 ecosystem in the US severely undermines the talent pipeline.  A significant portion of K-12 schools do not even offer the courses needed to become STEM ready.  The opportunity for a high quality K-12 education is most affected by ZIP code rather than student aptitude due to local school budgets being based on local property taxes – the more valuable the homes, the more money for schools.

There is also a substantial lack of K-12 outcome data.  As noted above, there are no national standards for high school graduation and no standards for curricula, as they are controlled by 14,000 local school boards.  These boards tend to focus on maximizing the percent of students that graduate rather than assessing the knowledge and skills of graduates. Social promotion can predominate, which is the practice of promoting students to the next grade level despite not having learned the material they were taught or having achieved expected learning standards.

National graduation standards, standardized curricula, and eventually an integrated education system will remediate the above shortcomings over time.  This will require external review and enforcement, which need not be administered by federal or state governments.  Appropriate accreditation and certification boards can be managed by non-profit entities, just as done with Advanced Placement.

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