Suppose you could hop aboard a time machine and travel back to 1850s America. Upon arrival, you shanghai the first Man on the Street you meet and return with him to 2012, just to get his opinion on our 21st century world. You show him around and he's thunderstruck at modern transportation, retail, communication, entertainment, sports, art, music, construction, health care, and damn near everything else. He can scarcely believe that 1850 and 2012 were merely different years on the same planet. There is, however, one "industry" which he instantly recognizes: education.
Sure, the educational facilities of today are a wild improvement on the one-room schoolhouse of our hostage's era, and modern students are likely to have iPads and clothes made of materials other than gingham, but the basic set-up - that is, of a teacher lecturing to a captive audience of students - has changed remarkably little from the time of my parents, my grandparents, my great-parents, and so on back to the middle of the 19th century. Indeed, in the United States, the school year still follows a schedule based largely around an agrarian economy that demanded the labor of all able bodies during the summer months.
If Joseph Schumpeter was correct about "creative destruction" - and he sure seems to have been - wouldn't we expect its forces to reshape education? Or is there something sacred and immovable about the "Teacher Talks, Students Listen" model of schooling?
Along with finance and health care/insurance, K-12 education is among the most regulated industries in the United States - perhaps even the most regulated. Governments not only dictate curriculum and decide which public schools students will be allowed to attend, but also mandate that students spend a certain number of years in a school meeting certain criteria. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, such a system is marvelously efficient at producing obedient little citizens, but surely someone, somewhere has a better idea for how to actually "educate" kids.
But how would we know? Entrepreneurs have had little opportunity to tinker with, let alone overhaul, the calcified system of K-12 schooling in America. Sure, we have experiments in private schools (e.g. Montessori schools), charter schools, and home schooling, but students are still subject to the underlying compulsory attendance laws and the market as a whole remains distorted by a public school system that extracts taxes from citizens to fund what appear to be outmoded models of learning in those schools.
My (uber-realistic) question, then, is this: what if, starting tomorrow, the government removed itself entirely from the field of education, and especially from the K-12 years, including taxes, funding, and all laws pertaining to curriculum and compulsory attendance? Would disaster ensue, with parents ceasing to educate their younguns and instead sending them back to the coal face to earn a few extra nickels for the family? Or might we begin to see the emergence of new paths to becoming an "educated person?" In this scenario, what would education look like in 2022, or 2052?
Of course, I don't know the answer to this question. But then, if you'd asked me - or, really, anyone other than Steve Jobs - in 2002 about the future of digital communication, I could never have predicted the iPhone. And what will cell phones look like in 2022? Again, I have no idea, but I'm fairly confident they'll be pretty nifty. Similarly, in education, I haven't the foggiest notion of what "schooling" would look like in a free and open environment, but I suspect that it might be an improvement on schools as we now know them.
Obviously, speculations like mine are way off the radar of most education reformers. For something a bit more conventional - and a smaller step in the right direction - there's this short video:
Embedded Video: What You Should Know About School Choice