The pandemic changed what the American public wants from K-12 education.
Rather than preparing young people for college, Americans want K-12 to help young people learn more practical, tangible skills and outcomes. This view includes ensuring young people have more choices or pathways to opportunity rather than only the college pathway. That’s the heart of a recent Purpose of Education Index report by Populace, a Massachusetts nonprofit.
Populace used interviews and focus groups to identify 57 attributes describing the purposes of K-12 education. It then interviewed nationally representative groups of a general population and parent sample using the attributes.
Three themes dominate the Index and imply the need for what I call a new K-12 opportunity program.
First, K-12 schools need a priority reset.
The Index reports that “getting kids ready for college” dropped from a pre-pandemic 10th highest priority to 47 out of 57.
Priority one is students “developing practical skills” — only one in four (26%) think they do — followed by “problem solving and making decisions,” “demonstrating character” and “demonstrating basic reading, writing and arithmetic.” This leads to approximately seven in 10 (71%) saying more things should change in K-12 education than stay the same, with about two in 10 (21%) saying everything should change.
Two, Americans want a personalized approach to K-12 education with more options and pathways.
The Index reports that Americans place a high priority on giving students the unique support they need (No. 5) rather than giving each student the same level of support (No. 34) or having them study the same advance thing (No. 54).
Americans are strong believers in mastery learning, where students move on to the next subject after having demonstrated that they have mastered a subject (No. 7).
These views suggest the need for more K-12 options and pathways for young people, what the report calls “individualized and tailored approaches that recognize students’ unique needs.”
Third, Americans have collective illusions about K-12 education. There’s a gap between what Americans personally want in K-12 education and what they perceive other Americans want, what the report calls collective illusions.
For example, as the first theme shows, most do not think K-12 should prepare students to enroll in college, ranking it 47 out of 57. But many think most Americans do, giving college preparation a perceived societal ranking of 3 out of 57, a 44-rank difference. The report shows these collective illusions “are the rule, not the exception” which creates false barriers to changing the K-12 system.
The index’s findings on what Americans want most and least in the K-12 education system imply a new opportunity program for K-12 education that is based on opportunity pluralism.
This approach offers individuals multiple credentialing pathways to work and career. It makes the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic so individuals pursue opportunity through many avenues linked to labor-market demands.
These paths include apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and post-secondary and other training institutions; job placement for on-the-job training; career academies; boot camps for acquiring discrete knowledge and skills; and staffing and placement services.
In short, opportunity pluralism aims to ensure that every American — regardless of background or current condition — has multiple pathways to acquiring the knowledge, skills, character and networks needed for jobs, careers, and human flourishing.
Elected state leaders are expanding educational options to make this opportunity agenda a reality. This includes open enrollment across school district boundaries, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts.
ESAs are especially popular since they allow families to tap state education funding for many different costs, including private school tuition, tutoring, after-school programs and community college.
Currently, nine states have some version of an ESA, with more than half a dozen governors proposing new programs. All this is producing a more pluralistic K-12 system with more educational options for families and students.
The benefits of such an opportunity program reach far beyond economic preparedness. It includes the importance of developing character and the relational aspects of success in addition to the technical or material dimensions.
This program also helps young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self. Choosing an occupation and developing a broader vocational sense of one’s values, abilities, and personality is important for adult success.
Finally, this opportunity program puts young people on a trajectory to economic and social well-being, informed citizenship and civic responsibility, laying a foundation for adult success, a lifetime of opportunity and human flourishing.
The author is an adviser for the Walton Family Foundation
Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program and a former US. assistant secretary of education for policy.