Education as a Public Good

by Tom Vander Ark

This fall, about 50 million students will return to American public schools. That will include three million students attending more than 7,100 public charter schools.

While it’s hard to count, a couple million of these students will benefit from online learning. Thirty states plus Washington DC have fully online schools operating statewide. Many states and most districts have expanded part-time access to online learning (state policies supporting part-time online learning are often called course access).

More than two million high school students will take advantage of college credit opportunities including dual enrollment and Advanced Placement. Public education in most urban centers operates as a multi-operator portfolio, with or without the consent of the urban district(s).

Outside the public system another five million students will attend private schools and about two million will be homeschooled. There are a growing number of innovative micro-schools (most are private but districts can use the same strategy).

Opportunities to learning outside formal education are exploding with open education resources and anywhere anytime sources (see a list of 30). There are about 200,000 learning apps in the Apple and Android store.

Traditionally, education has been a place called “school.” But, it is becoming a bundle of personal learning services, many of them digital. An emerging vision for learning as a service includes provisioning local support services and application opportunities with a set of anywhere anytime services.

The exploding opportunity set is exciting but challenging. It requires more learner and parent decisions than ever, and was the was the rationale for the Smart Parents blog series and culminating book Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning (coming August 2015).

Public good. While speaking with the staff of the leading talent development platform Bloomboard (where I’m a director), a manager asked a profound question, “With all of the individual choices, how do we protect and advance the public good?”

The answer to this important question has eight implications for state and local policymakers.

  1. Citizenship goal. There is a healthy movement toward broader aims including work readiness and social and emotional learning. To the question What Should High School Graduates Know And Be Able To Do?, preparation for contribution as a citizen should remain an important goal. In addition to civic knowledge, opportunities for community service (exemplified by Quest Early College) can be a great way to build skills and dispositions.
  1. Employability goal. Every person, organization and region needs to get smart – to skill up, learn more and build new capacities faster and cheaper than ever. That’s the thesis of Smart Cities That Work For Everyone. In the long run, education is the economic development agenda, making it more important than ever as a public good. Innovative new tools and schools are making it possible for individuals, organizations, and cities to boost learning outcomes.
  1. Good school promise. Every family in every state should have access to a good local school and some interesting options. That requires states to have an effective accountability system (which is more important than ever given a smaller federal role).At the local level, it requires leaders committed to developing an equitable portfolio of options (discussed in Smart Cities, Chapter 2). That means aiming school improvement and new school development at underserved communities. It also means equitable access to online learning. It’s crazy that some American high school students still lack access to Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, foreign language, and advanced STEM courses.Let’s not forget transportation, because without it choices aren’t equitable. This requires zip code specific analysis to consider access to educational options.
  1. Information about options. Every family should have easy access to information about the type and quality of schools and academic programs available to them. ExcelinEd ran the #SchoolInfo Challenge to spur improvement in state education information systems. Families deserve great free mobile apps to help navigate educational options from early childhood through postsecondary.
  1. Supports. Youth and family services should be widely and easily available. With expanded access to part-time online learning, states should provide access to expanded counseling services (like Louisiana’s Supplemental Course Academy).
  1. Take home tech. All families should have access to 24/7 learning resources. Students should have take home tech, either their own or school provided. It’s cheap enough and important enough that there’s no excuse for disconnected learners in America in 2015.
  1. Funding. Key to an equitable education system is weighted, portable, flexible funding system. Schools deserve funding that is relevant to the risk factors of enrolled students (not the local tax base).In addition to equitable K-12 funding, regions benefit from partnerships with and aligned investment from youth/family service providers, innovation funders (discussed in more detail in Chapter 4&5 of Smart Cities).
  1. Governance. As a public good, there may be no more important factor than ethical, stable, effective governance. Revolving door leadership in urban districts is disastrous for teachers and students. Our approach to governance must evolve as learning opportunities expands (discussed in more detail in Smart Cities, Chapter 2).

Our kids. Learning occurs as a series of experiences but an education is more than a series of cumulative transactions, it is a personal journey that becomes a public good; individuals and the larger society benefit from the contributions that emerge from development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Because, in many communities, only a quarter of registered voters have kids in school, it is important that the public recognizes the benefit of education as a public good.

In his new book Our Kids, Robert Putnam decries the emergence of a disturbing “opportunity gap.” The eight policies outlined above make big strides to narrowing the gap but in the long run, education as a public good requires us to be a nation where there are only ‘our kids,’ not just ‘my kids.’”

Read the article by Tom Vander Ark on Getting Smart at

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