As I reflect on last night’s Presidential Debate between Senator Obama and Senator McCain and the conversations about education and America’s future, I am debating the value of the debate. It’s always encouraging to hear education being placed front and center in these debates. Education is indeed a lynchpin in today’s economy, and as such has both economic and national security implications—i.e., no country has retained prominence when their economy falters. However, education is so much more than a utilitarian tool to power local, state, and national economies. Education is also about personal transcendence – giving people a pathway to possibility. A progressive society has to embrace this role as aggressively as it does the others. I’m not sure we marry both roles in our education debates as we should.
Moreover, we continue to discuss education in terms of discrete silos and systems – reifying a model of education that no longer exists. We predominantly talk about K-12 and “educating our kids” and higher education as “going to college.” Today’s education world in the US is so much more dynamic. We have dual enrollment programs and early college high schools helping high school students earn two or more years of college before they graduate from 12th grade. We have incumbent worker programs in community colleges that provide credit courses for workers during their breaks. They aren’t “going” anywhere when they go to college. Moreover, the static conversations about college as a one-time event cause even more challenges. Sure we still have a segment of higher education that attends college in a traditional way—4 years, on campus. However, an increasing number (if not the majority) of students in higher education are swirling in to and out of the system at different ages and stages. Students transfer between institutions in ever-greater numbers and they return on a regular basis to upgrade skills or change career directions. (Often not by choice!)
Today’s debates about education need to move beyond the static “improve K-12” and “increase access to higher education” arguments. We need to talk about supporting policy and practice that enables a dynamic system of learning that spans early childhood programs, K-12, early-college high schools, dual-enrollment offerings, AP courses, adult literacy programs, community colleges, universities, workforce development, and contract training in on-campus, online, and blended formats – at the very least.
Education debates need to be about more than just improving our economy and protecting our national status—they need also to be about helping individuals move to the next level. Education debates need to be about more than advocating new models for K-12 and better financial aid for universities—they need to be about fostering a dynamic system of multiple providers using a myriad of tools to reach individual, local, and national learning goals.
It’s time to change the debate and possibly change our education system for the better!