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Second Great Decoupling: Separating Students from Schools

Second Great Decoupling: Separating Students from Schools

The purpose of this article is to briefly describe education policy within a historical narrative

Decouple: to cause to become separated, disconnected, or divergent; uncouple.

The first Great Decoupling occurred around the turn of the last century when students were separated from their immediate community and as some argue their family. The origin of which were contained in the kernel of the Industrial Revolution and brought to froth in the post-Civil War business climate. Those original one-room school houses of an agrarian 1830s/1840s past were combined with adjacent and localized school communities in order to achieve maximum efficiency. Indeed, at one point in the US we had over 200,000 school districts (although some were a one-room, one school, school district)! Currently, we have about 15,000 school districts.

This first Great Decoupling was important and necessary as it prepared students to work in a factory setting. The preparation was so realistic it even included a bell which would ultimately mimic the changing of the factory shift. Students would be taught in an assembly-line fashion , expected to conform to rules, not question authority, and above all “produce” for a nascent superpower.  This first Great Decoupling worked very well. It brought the US an increased standard-of-living, introduced waves of immigrants to democratic ideals, fought a Great Depression, won two World Wars, and brought down the Evil Empire.

However, by the mid-1970s cracks begin to appear. The Oil Embargo, cheaper airline travel, cable TV, the opening of China (predicated upon Mao’s death) and other foreign markets begun erode US factory dominance in two ways. Indeed, the movie the Deer Hunter (1977) opens-up with a nondescript yet in-decline Pennsylvania steel town.

1. The factors helped charge-up globalization which put new competitive pressures on US manufacturing which they were unable to cope. After all, the world is the market NOT just the US.

2. The new technologies helped people connect with each other from around the globe. This helped established improve relations, particularly those of in an business/economic sense.

In fact, US education had eroded so far in about 10 years that by 1983 the seminal report, A Nation At Risk was produced that identified:

declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted

The American Education system worked well for over 100 years until with in a 10-year time frame it no longer worked! The educational model that made the US a Superpower no longer fit!

Following the report, policies were put into place that sought “boost” educational achievement by mandating a rigorous testing regime. Various states experimented with “test till your blessed” programs that sought correct the “sins” of an educational model through high-stakes standardized testing policies. The various state programs become crystallized under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which federally mandated a testing program for all schools receiving government funds

Since NCLB, high-stakes testing regime as taken hold across all states (although some are beginning to reject it). These “test till your blessed” programs will not work because the model they are grafted to is broken. Elected leaders are touting a treatment for a symptom rather than a cure for a disease.

Nevertheless, a cure is not elusive!

Since the Great Recession there has been a trend towards the Second Great Decoupling. The second Great Decoupling relies on the technological advancement and investment in the 1990s which brought high-speed/wireless internet access to large swaths of America and the investments made by millennials in mobile internet via smartphones. Additionally, the Great Recession has placed financial difficulty on states, which have often turned to axing education budgets (education is often the state’s most costly service) in order to achieve a balanced state budget (without raising taxes, of course). School districts have responded in-kind by NOT hiring teachers (which increases class sizes) and NOT increasing pay/benefits (which drives potential candidates away) all the while continually to decree that pre-recession goals still be achieved, mandates met, and budgets maintained. It is truly a feat that in-spite of all odds, American teachers have stepped-up to the plate and delivered.

In the end though, the herculean efforts of American teachers can only do so much against the ruthlessness of economic efficiency and maximization, and perhaps that is for the best. Nothing gets a paradigm shift like a financial crisis.  The second Great Decoupling will result in students being separated from their schools. After staff, capital or “operations”  (such as buildings and buses and the money spent to maintain them) is the second largest expense for most districts. Districts under such economic pressure may decide to sell off school real-estate and in return provide lower-taxes (or at least a slow-down on tax increases) and guarantee online educational access via subsidies for internet access and/or district supplied computers.  One could envision a lively insurance market to insure district computers (loaned out to students) against fraud, theft, and breakage.

In the second Great Decoupling students will be part of a virtual district in a virtual school in a virtual classroom. Teachers may be hired “at-will” with one-year contracts without benefits (mimicking those who are already part of the “freelance” economy) which may result in a further decline of the teacher profession. In such a model, districts may elect to “outsource” teaching to global teacher-temp agencies which may provided better quality services at a lower price. Students may find themselves with a math teacher from Kazakhstan, an English teacher from China, and a history teacher from Peru. One may find American Teachers leaving the US to teacher enclaves/communities in foreign countries with low-standards of living in order to continue to practice their “profession”.

Such a model may result in a win for the students as they experience a truly globalized education, a win for the district as they can provided cheaper services at better quality, and a win for educators who for once may actual be paid what they are worth (though, they may have to leave the country).