There are numerous schools, startups, parents and educators building a system that prepares students for 21st century life: innovative, critical and entrepreneurial. These should continuously be supported, and alternatives and improvements to the system should be insisted upon.
What was school like for you?
If you went to a normal public school, you were likely divided into groups of approximately 20-30 students, bundled together by age and moved from grade to grade after passing standardized tests.
When one looks at the first publicly funded schooling system in the United States, used in Massachusetts more than 150 years ago, the classroom looked almost identical to this. In the last century, very little has changed.
Even though educational facilities have formed part of human civilization since its inception, universal schooling for children and teenagers was not always the case. Instead, it emerged in 19th-century Prussia as schools designed to produce factory workers for the burgeoning industrialization of the region. As Joel Rose writes in The Atlantic, “Factories weren't designed to support personalization. Neither were schools.”
Ivy Xu, CEO and Co-Founder of the virtual global entrepreneurship bootcamp BETA Camp, recently wrote an op-ed piece on the future of K-12 education. In it, she outlines the massive challenges facing K-12 education, including that our education system has been beyond sluggish in keeping pace with the dizzying speed of developments in the world.
Suggestions for change include an increased personalization in the education system, the greater integration of technology in K-12 education and the rethinking of the goals and testing systems of K-12 education.
“The future of K-12 education cannot be built on the outdated models that served our grandparents. It must allow for a new level of personalization, establish a new standard for success, and inspire a new wave of ambition,” writes Xu.
BETA Camp is one startup pushing the reforms on what K-12 education should look like. BETA Camp a global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp where students learn business, tech and entrepreneurship through the process of building their own revenue generating startup. Join an info session (register here) to learn more about this opportunity.
This blogpost will explore some of the developments in education, critiques of the status quo of K-12 education and suggest what can be done to improve K-12 education as we move forward.
Table of Contents
Grade by age?
For American children the term K-12 seems self-explanatory, but it is rarely used outside the country’s borders. It means “kindergarten to twelfth grade” and sets out the traditional path that a child takes through the education system.
Within the United States, the phases of schooling are divided into three stages: elementary school, which runs from kindergarten until the 5th grade, middle school, which encompasses grade 6 to 8 and high school, which runs from grade 9 to 12. K-12 therefore describes the totality of a journey that a child traditionally takes through the pre-college education system.
The system is typically organized by age. This has come in for criticism. As Ana Lorena Fabrega writes, “How did we conclude that the best way to prepare kids for the future is to cluster them into a setting where they are organized by age, into grades, and forced to learn the same things, at the same time and pace, 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 12 + years?”
The future of education might see shifts away from this age-based system to something more premised on ability. However, are there some benefits to basing grades on age - socially and pedagogically? Read more on this topic here.
As BETA Camp alumni Yash Uppal writes, “If we can train olympic athletes at a young age, then why can’t we train future CEO’s and build startups at a young age?”
The role of the government?
Within the United States, children enter kindergarten at the age of five or six and proceed to a higher grade every year. Most schools are supervised by the state government, which sets the overall curriculum and standards, mandate standardized tests and supervise school quality.
Students move from grade to grade by passing standardized tests, which usually involve the testing of various subjects, the quantity and level of which differ from grade to grade and state to state.
The vast majority of schools within the United States are public schools, government-run and subsidized. Only approximately 10% are private schools. Many of these private schools are religiously aligned - something public schools are prohibited from being. However, some private schools are secular and merely prefer the greater independence that comes with privacy.
What role should the government play in the future of education? There has been a growing trend of homeschooling - a move away from government interference in the education system. However, as VICE points out in this documentary - government non-interference comes with risks of inadequate schooling or inappropriate political opinions being enforced upon students.
For those interested in an in-depth exploration of this topic - Milton Friedman’s paper on the “Role of Goverment in Education” is an excellent source to explore.
Pay to Play?
Public high schools are generally free to students and are tax-payered subsidized. On average, taxpayers contribute approximately $13,000 per student per year.
Private schools are generally far more expensive, with the most expensive private school in the United States charging approximately $85,000 per student per year. Many private schools are, however, far less expensive and some are still government subsidized or receive funding from religious institutions.
As the future of education gets explored, it is important that reforms are not confined to private schools or after-schooling programs confined to those with resources. The vast majority of students still attend public schools, and that is where reforms need to be implemented.
Why the need for reform?
K-12 education has come under severe criticism for the job it is doing in preparing students for the modern-day world. Xu writes that “traditional education aims to produce rule followers, whereas the future of education must produce disruptors”.
Criticism includes that K-12 education is insufficiently personal, instead focussing on standardized testing - which is both inflexible and impersonal - as the exclusive indicator of success.
Within smaller, more personalized programs, students that were previously reluctant to speak up, often feel more comfortable to do so. This was the case for BETA Camp alum, Madison Huang, who said, “At school I was quiet, and reluctant to speak up in class. BETA Camp gave me the freedom to voice my ideas and speak out because there is this distance over Zoom.”
The notion that K-12 education is outdated is also a recurring criticism of the system. School curriculum is generally controlled by the state government and changes to it are expensive and time-consuming. Teachers, many of whom are accustomed to the old curriculum, also have to be retrained if the curriculum changes.
Another criticism is that K-12 education lacks in developing critical thinking and entrepeneurial skills. The focus on standardized testing encourages students to focus on memorizing work instead of engaging and solving real-world problems.
As Xu writes, “Today’s complex world requires a different set of skills. Those who stand out leverage skills that, in most cases, they developed outside of the traditional education system. Real world success requires real world skills that are hard to come by in traditional schools.”
What comes next?
Numerous alternatives have been developed to replace or enhance traditional K-12 schools. Private schools have existed for a long time alongside traditional high schools, but students are still generally required to undergo standardized testing, therefore schools have limited leeway regarding their curriculum. The price tag attached to them also puts attendance out of reach for many families.
Homeschooling has increased dramatically since 2019. In that year, homeschooled students totalled 3.2% of all students. By fall 2020, the figure had increased to 11.1%. This increase, partly driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, was also driven by parents who wish to have greater control over their children’s education. You can read more about the rise of homeschooling here.
There has also been a rise of ed-tech startups aimed at K-12 students. Astra Nova is an exclusively online school offering full-time or part-time enrollment for students all over the world. Synthesis, co-founded by the founder of Astra Nova, is a similar online enrichment program for kids ages 8-14.
Initially it was exclusively available to the children of the employees of SpaceX, but it is now open to people around the world. You can read more about these educational programs, and their link to Elon Musk, here.
The Knowledge Society is a 10-month global innovation part-time program for ambitious high school students, with the option of a fully virtual or in-person program in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. Students meet for three hours on weekends and receive mentorship, discuss problems facing the world and develop the skills to come up with solutions.
BETA Camp is a fully virtual global entrepreneurship bootcamp where students learn real-world skills, which is difficult to obtain with traditional schooling, through building their own revenue generating start-up. This style of project-based learning is open to 13-18 year olds and is fully virtual - allowing students from all over the world to participate.
Other extra-curricular programs such as DECA and FBLA also exist to enhance the entrepreneurial education that K-12 fails to nurture. These clubs are designed as an extracurricular add-on to traditional K-12 education. You can read a full review of FBLA here.
Principles we need
Xu outlines some of the interventions that could result in a more productive K-12 education. She argues that “one way we can improve the future of education is to allow for greater educational personalization”. She explains how the greater use of edtech and rethinking of the way we test at school could be key interventions to improve educational outcomes and increase personalization.
She also argues that it is necessary to set higher goals within K-12 education to heighten the ambitions of students - saying that the current system’s focus on standardized tests instead of real-life skills have lowered students’ ambitions. “Setting ambitious goals leads to a higher level of educational transformation and is something that any educator can do, regardless of the resources that they have available,” writes Xu.
The use of technology is something that Rose also advocated for in The Atlantic. However, he argues that mere technological introduction into the classroom is insufficient to disrupt K-12 education - instead a fundamental rethink of the underlying assumptions in the education system is required. He argues that the classroom designed for industrial Prussia is still stubbornly present in the modern American classroom, and a new model is required for our current world.
Educating the next generation is one of the most important duties entrusted to parents and, to some extent, the government. Building the future of K-12 education and continuously improving the system, is a duty that rests on all of us collectively. There are numerous schools, startups, parents and educators building a system that prepares students for 21st century life: innovative, critical and entrepreneurial. These should continuously be supported, and alternatives and improvements to the system should be insisted upon.
Any questions about BETA Camp? Reach out to us at email@example.com or join an upcoming info session, where the BETA Camp experience and program outcomes will be expanded upon and questions about tuition and financial aid answered.