Educational Austerity

In lieu of a comprehensive examination, my doctoral program is testing a new approach to determining a student’s readiness for dissertation: a practical paper designing a near-future learning model, one which relies heavily on coursework and tangential authors/theories. As a beta student for the project, it seems like a great approach to the problem; rather than writing a document for the sheer purpose of showing volume learned, this paper accomplishes that purpose while likely providing fodder for a dissertation, a publishing, or even a trial run. We are charged to consider our model in the same way think tanks and conglomerates view horizon reports: we don’t want to be so near-sighted that our efforts are in practice on a large-scale already, and we don’t want to be so far-sighted that our aspirations belong in speculative fiction.

My ed model revolves around a partnership between museums and educational institutions, dependent on the idea of open access/open content. In a perfect world, my model provides students with unique and authentic interactions with content, teachers with professional development accrual (but more importantly a constructivist approach to learning that reinforces their stature as a professional), and museums with increased patronage, digitized content, and education departments worked to serve as stewards of content rather than Gods of artifacts. I’m primarily building the model based on courses in Knowledge Creation, Social Learning, Ethics, Organizational Innovation & Change, Qualitative Research, and New Media Literacy.

I love the model. I love the purpose, I love the parties involved, I love the possibility, I love the outcomes. And I’m stuck. And I’m stuck because my model is swimming up-current in a river of Big Data.

The role of Education in society is at a crossroads…and that’s the nicest way to put it. The reason for the crossroads exists because there is not a standard definition on what Education is supposed to provide: one end of the spectrum says the goal is to pass on skills and facts to citizens, and the other end says the goal is to produce an active and engaged citizenry. There is overlap in the two, but argument usually goes that education is designed to create a common core of facts and knowledge, or that education is a lot more than that and deserves greater explanation than a sound bite. And the common core faction is in command of the debate today. There are brilliant blogs about this situation and the history and the outcomes, but to put it simply, in contemporary American society schools are focused on meeting standards, and the standards measured revolve around a common core of knowledge, and that common core is measured through standardized testing, after which scores are utilized to determine a sizable amount of a student’s future education (from his/her educational plan to teachers, departments, districts, etc.). Whether education is a lot more than a common core, the push in educational policy and practice is toward more core, and all signs point to this continuing into the future (one of the few points of bipartisan agreement is on the need for education to meet common standards; the problems come in just how much of that effort should be privatized).

There are at least four US Governmental Departments that provide funds to STEM-related programs (to be fair, most are for job training and not in K-12): Energy, Commerce, Transportation and Education are the ones I talked to policy folks about while in DC this past March. How many of those groups provide funds to educational programs based around museums? There is some money at the Institute for Museums and Library Services, but a drop in the bucket comparatively, and the money at IMLS is divided through the various departments of museums and libraries (though both institutions were designed with educative purposes in mind). Assuming that a museum would be interested in reorganizing their education department to focus less on tours and curriculum and almost exclusively on professional development and stewardship in a realm of open access and open content, expecting more than a handful of schools to sign on for a program that views education as a great deal more than common core (and thus requiring a great deal more than a sentence of explanation of education’s merits and objectives) seems ludicrous.

We live in an age of educational austerity. The profession of teacher continues to erode into a job of menial skill, focused on classroom management and paper trails rather than authentic educative experiences. Success is only viewed as something measurable, so all agents involved in educating a child drive education to provide high measurable marks, never questioning the specific instrument of measure. Efforts to change the system from within are hampered by testing-based assessment of schools and districts, making large-scale changes a high-risk venture. There are affluent private schools that would jump at the opportunity to partner with a museum and embark on such a learning model, but those are outliers, and ignore the problem of access and opportunity in greater public education. It’s bleak, and it doesn’t look like it will improve any time soon.

Economic austerity in Europe and America was criticized by the majority of economists around the world, who mixed their economic theory with history, politics and policy to determine that a course of steep spending cuts by the only institution with the ability to continue operating at or above capacity would hinder societal growth. Their voices were muted by pundits and outside agents who championed austerity, leading to a standstill recovery in America and worse in Europe. On the education side, education researchers and theorists are sounding the alarm about blind allegiance to common core and standardized assessment. Those voices are muted by individuals like Jeb Bush and Joel Klein, who advocate for increased testing and assessment standards (and are buffered by anti-tax hawk Grover Norquist, who recently said that efforts to push against school choice are inherently racist). Results in the age of standardization have not been glowing — some students are improving on tests, others are not, but jobs and society are at a standstill.

While we wait to disprove economic and educational austerity, and then clean up the pieces, having a model in place that can provide benefit to multiple stakeholders is argument enough for going forward with a proposal that is diametrically opposed to current political trends. I have to hope, however, that the near future is not the distant past once trends begin their shift.


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