From early in our nation’s history, free, universal, high quality public education has been widely recognized as a pillar of democratic society and essential to its economic and cultural growth. For nearly four decades, however, expressions of major concern with the state of our educational enterprise have preoccupied us as a nation. Those concerns have resulted in numerous reform efforts intended to address specific problems and right the course for this most important of American institutions. While some of these efforts have met with a modicum of success, none has provided a vision of what education in our nation ought to look like if we are to continue to enjoy the economic, ethical, and intellectual prosperity our citizens expect and the world envies.
Recent cycles of reform have treated public education as if it were a large manufacturing concern, with controllable inputs and raw materials. Education is different. Its desired “outputs” are embedded in human beings—complex and diverse living organisms—who respond in idiosyncratic and unanticipated ways to increasingly constrained and standardized educational processes. The sites where learning occurs, whether in classrooms or Silicon Valley startups, function less like factories producing uniform products and more like ecological systems that can and do respond unpredictably to changing conditions. Unlike purely biological systems, however, public education is a human system with identities, relationships, and shared information that have social, intellectual, and moral dimensions. Public education systems are distinguished from purely biological systems by human intellect and ethos that are capable of forming a shared vision, a common purpose that can and should enrich everyone’s individual and collective existence.
As public education evolves to meet future demands, it can no longer be “managed” like an industry from a bygone era. In reclaiming its human identity as well as what it shares in common with biological systems, visionary public education can transform itself into something new and vastly more successful by generating its own innovations through diversity, experimentation, and adaptation.
We offer a set of thirteen fundamental principles as our vision for redefining public education. We hope that decision makers—students, parents, teachers, boards of education, legislators, administrators—will use these principles in developing policies and practices before it’s too late.