Education is the cornerstone of any prosperous democracy. It is a fundamental aspect of every developing human’s life and sets the tone for our ability to reimagine and reconstruct our circumstances. But education as an institution in the United States is ill-prepared for the task of enlightening youth growing up in 2019. A progressive approach to education would redefine how and what we teach students today to better prepare them for the world of tomorrow.

A reinvention of youth education in the United States is necessary for three primary reasons. First, the foundation of our present methodology is based on a way of learning, living, and producing that no longer bears relevance to the world our youth will mature into. Second, there is measurable systemic disadvantage existing within our institutions today, specifically for students of color [1]. Third, these disadvantages are exacerbated by a school financing model that is tied directly to municipality taxes. These flaws are systemic and highlight an urgency to rethink how we approach educating our children.

Educational Character

Public education has been recognized as an essential social institution throughout the history of the United States, with the first public school opening in colonial Massachusetts during the year 1635 [2]. The curriculum focused on reading, writing, arithmetic with history and geography included as well.

Work of the time focused primarily on the sustenance work of farming and fishing, developing specialization into manual labor such as shipbuilding, metalworkers, tanners, and others. As the colonies developed mercantilism surged, exporting raw materials such as fur and timber [3].

Technological advancements were occurring at a significantly slower pace than today, giving people the perception that life didn’t seem all that different from one generation to the next. Learning a trade like metalworking meant that you’d gain a skill that would allow you to produce and survive throughout your lifetime. Compare that paradigm of work to the present day, where automation software innovations threaten entire industries.

The advent of public education in the United States was in Puritan religious communities. It was designed to help create better model citizens to exist within the practices of the time. Herein lies one of the most fundamental challenges with present-day education; it is still very much tied to the purposes of the past. Methods and structure that do not translate into success in 2019.

To illustrate this point, we can use U.S. schools as an example. Grade ranking students over a wide range of subjects is a form of competition. A hierarchical style of teaching reinforces this competitive structure. Teachers teach, and students listen. Sharing ideas or answers in the classroom is labeled cheating and punished appropriately. Questioning the material accuracy or perspective is considered disobedience.

The problem with the competitive education model is that it reinforces ideologies within our culture that are not fitting for our present and future circumstances. A competitive atmosphere promotes individualism, an idea instilling the primary virtues of self-reliance and personal independence. Individual autonomy isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when we make it central to a child’s worldview, we are failing that individual. Now more than ever, human beings are an interconnected matrix; we need an education agenda that reflects that.

Progressives looking to empower our youth to excel should work towards a fundamental change to the character of education in the United States. Our objective is to prioritize a form of knowledge rooted in dialogue and discussion. Freeing youth from education models focusing on memorization and regurgitation is motivated by the changing nature of work. The education many of us received was intended to prepare us for industrial era labor.

To better illustrate this concept, we can consider the subject of history. History is often taught from the perspective of the nation learning it. What do you remember about American colonial history from elementary school? If you were born in the 1980s or earlier it probably included lessons sharing how Native Americans gave the settlers food, agricultural technologies, and blankets during the harsh winters.

But this method of teaching history denies future leaders the truth surrounding our circumstances. Wherever possible, we should teach every subject from two different perspectives. We can take the traditional bias account of our national history and contrast it against alternative views. For example, students could discuss the intentional genocide of the natives by colonists [4] with American expansion.

The teachers act less as primary information sources and more like discussion facilitators between the students. Our earlier example allows for the exploration of the relationship between the history of the American empire and the present society. Discussions weighing the historical price of progress will equip youth with a broader perspective for the future.

Learning becomes less about memorizing dates, times, and places, and more about critical thinking, evaluation, and contesting ideas of the situations that led us to the present moment. By teaching our students to evaluate conditions from multiple perspectives, we encode a deep empathy into our educational institutions presently lacking in the United States.

Beyond increased dialogue, progressives should work towards structuring education in the United States to allow students to explore a more selective depth of topics earlier in the process. Imagine breakout sessions occurring as early as the fourth and fifth grade, giving students the autonomy to develop specialization and more profound understanding of the subjects that interest them the most.

Tailoring learning to passion pulls a method that has demonstrated success throughout history. Entrepreneurial innovators are almost always passionate about the work they are doing. It’s because of their interests and focuses that they can develop vision beyond what others can see. Applying this methodology to our educational institutions produces a system where students can excel earlier and faster, building confidence and teaching focus.

Because the ultimate objective of any educational institution is to instill autonomy into students, no discussion regarding the character of education can be complete without a deeper embracing of technology. Specifically, progressives should fight for every school curriculum to include mandatory programming courses for every student in grades 3–12. Programming is a unique trade, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in human history. That’s because it is the only profession existing that is not subject to the economic law of diminishing returns.

Diminishing returns happen when organizations increase specific inputs in a production system intending to see a return. Eventually, traditional business models reach a point where the return on those inputs becomes less and less valuable with each increase. Programming avoids this constraint because its primary innovation driver is imagination. Each programmer builds upon the works of those who came before them to create something new. Any person armed with a deep understanding of a programming language is limited only by their ideation of the possible.

Imagining a world where everyone knows how to program requires us to reject traditional economic principles such as market saturation. Under the progressive reformation of education, we classify programming as a second language, not a pathway to employment. By doing so, we lay the foundation for a culture of perpetual innovation in every direction and economical vertical. Contrasting a society of continual innovation to an industrial age demonstrates why an education system produced for industry can never prepare our youth for the work of tomorrow.

Breaking the Economics of Education

A significant challenge facing the reimagination of education is the generational disadvantage baked into the present arrangements. That’s because the majority of funding for public schools draws from local municipality taxes. Wealthier areas of the country have better schools, which in turn produce individuals with a higher capacity to generate wealth, reinforcing the cycle. More impoverished areas suffer in the opposite direction, with schools failing to prepare students to compete in a world with their better-educated peers, perpetuating poverty.

The progressive argument for educational reformation is that no child, regardless of birth lottery, deserves a less than optimal education. Presently we punish children born into a socioeconomic status that is less than ideal. Today school districts with the highest rates of poverty receive about $1,000 less per student in state and local funding than those with the lowest rates of poverty [5]. This claim is further supported by the consistently poor educational performance of rural conservative states when compared to progressive states.

Here the progressive confronts a pressing challenge facing the transformation of education. Wealthy neighborhoods may protest a more equitable approach to learning, rejecting the notion to pay more for schools outside of their area, and refusing to cooperate with a reduction in school funding. Impoverished rural areas are typically controlled by conservative legislators who will resist increasing funding in public schools. How then does the progressive begin the work of reform with resistance on both sides?

The argument for a redesign of our educational model is an argument for giving voice to the voiceless. Education is a vital component of the human experience, one that produces benefits well beyond work. We know that higher quality education typically correlates to a higher income, giving more people the opportunity to reach a level of economic freedom necessary to self-actualize [7]. Our present institutional arrangements calcify a hard class structure and deny that opportunity to millions. American’s focus on the short-term costs associated with an expanded institutional structure only serves to hinder our potential for progress in the future.

A progressive alternative to the present model would be to federalize the American education system. This process would begin with an evaluation of our highest performing schools. By understanding the programs and practices that contribute to successful institutions, we can build a framework to export. Our goal is to remove municipality taxes from the school funding equation entirely, transferring the burden to every individual via a federal tax.

We can imagine the ideal program structures exported to each school, customized by specialists to better tailor the program to the students. Education becomes a cooperative effort between federal, state, and local governments, ensuring the ability to maintain standards, disseminate best practices, and consistently explore areas for improvement. In the scenario where a school fails to meet federal quality standards, professionals are brought in to reform the school, bring it up to speed, and hand it back to community control. We stop making educational failures regional, cultural, and economic issues, and instead collectively accept responsibility for future generations in perpetuity.

By transitioning education to a federally mandated program, we begin the work of radically transforming the potential of our youth. Knowing what we know about the changing nature of the work, economy, and technology, there is no genuine alternative to reforming education. To deny the best possible quality education to an individual because of their parent’s economic status is unjust and immoral. As progressives, we embrace a perpetual campaign to challenge and change the education of our youth consistently. Because ultimately, an investment in our youth is an investment in ourselves.


[1] Education by the Numbers By Alice Yin New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/magazine/education-by-the-numbers.html

[2] Apr 23, 1635 CE: First Public School in America National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/apr23/first-public-school-america/

[3] What Was the Economy of Massachusetts Based on During the 1600s? By Exa von Alt Classroom https://classroom.synonym.com/what-was-the-economy-of-massachusetts-based-on-during-the-1600s-12083064.html

[4] Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide? By Guenter Lewy George Washington University https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/7302#sthash.z9Bqaswo.dpuf

[5] Funding Gaps 2018 by Ivy Morgan and Ary Amerikaner The Education Trust http://www.edtrust.org/StateOfFundingEquity

[6] Education Rankings by Brett Ziegler U.S. News & World Report https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/education

[7] A Well-Educated Workforce Is Key to State Prosperity By Noah Berger and Peter Fisher Economic Policy Institute https://www.epi.org/publication/states-education-productivity-growth-foundations/

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