School's Out

The new economic reality of 'free agents' is reshaping American education.

| January/February 2002

For the past decade or more, American workers have quietly been fomenting a revolution. Through the downsizings of the ’80s and the boom of the go-go ’90s, stockbrokers, PR flacks, dot-com geeks, meeting planners, and many more white-collar folks have broken away from 9-to-5 corporate gigs to have a go at it on their own. These 'free agents,' as Daniel Pink calls them, now include more than 30 million—one in four—American workers. They have changed the landscape of the American economy. Now they may be sparking a similar revolution in public education.
'Imagine how we’d prosper if we began educating our children more like we earn our livings,' Pink writes in the libertarian monthly Reason (Oct. 2001). In other words, imagine the creativity and energy we’d unleash if America’s public education system embraced free agency and let students follow their interests rather than keeping them leashed to rigid curricula and standardized tests. Imagine how well prepared these kids would be for the real world if schools gave them the kind of flexibility the workplace increasingly gives its workers.
It may seem far-fetched to imagine such a revolution in the public schools, which have resisted fundamental change over the past half century as no other American institution has done. 'How many other places look and feel exactly as they did 20, 30, or 40 years ago?' he asks. 'Banks don’t. Hospitals don’t. Grocery stores don’t.'
In fact, Pink argues, compulsory schooling of the sort America has practiced since the 1920s is an aberration in our culture. We are, he notes, a country that prides itself on promoting personal choice: No one is forced by law to vote, or to work, or to serve in the military. Yet parents have been compelled by law to turn their children over to an education system for 12 years of their life. There they have learned how to 'obey rules, follow orders, and respect authority.'
Such lessons were important to children growing up in an economy that relied heavily on factory workers and middle managers, Pink allows. But the new free agent economy requires a different sort of worker, with different skills and values. And it’s already changing the face of American learning.
These changes are most evident in three broad education movements: homeschooling, alternatives to high school, and adult education. 'Free agency will force the necessary changes,' Pink writes, and 'these changes will prove [to be] as pathbreaking as mass public schooling was a century ago.'
Illegal in most states until 1980, homeschooling is one of the most powerful education movements of our time. In 1990, about 300,000 kids were learning outside the system with the help of parents, peers, mentors, and tutors. Today, some 1.7 million children—roughly the number of school-age kids in the state of Pennsylvania—have opted out of the system, a number that is climbing by about 15 percent each year. 'Homeschooling is free agency for the under-18 set,' writes Pink. Like free agents in the workforce, homeschoolers are independent; they construct and maintain a network of resources, peers, and support; they challenge the separation of work, learning, and home life.
'Homeschooling is almost perfectly consonant with the four animating values of free agency: having freedom, being authentic, putting yourself on the line, and defining your own success,' he notes. It is 'perhaps the most robust expression of the free agent way outside the workplace, making its continued rise inevitable.'
Free agency is also sparking changes inside the system, especially in the way some perceive high schools. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, calls high school obsolete; he believes that most kids would be better served by jumping right into college classes, apprenticeships, public service, or the job market. Pink predicts that high schoolers will gradually replace or augment their institutional learning with apprenticeships, national service, and entrepreneurship, and that schools themselves will respond by offering a broader range of courses and by curbing standardized testing. 'Most politicians think the answer to the problems of high school is to exert more control,' he writes. 'But the real answer is less control. In the free agent future, our teens will learn by less schooling and more doing.'
Beyond high school and college, the rise of free agency is also demanding lifelong learning among adults. Part of this is simply the reality of an information economy, of course: In order to stay on top of any topic, the free agent must constantly upgrade his or her skills and knowledge. But as Pink points out, this ongoing learning curve is also the happy result of incentives built into the free agent economy. Nobody knew how to navigate the World Wide Web before about 1993, he notes; people had to explore it, connect with other people, build knowledge-sharing networks, and support innovation. None of this early work took place in a classroom, and those who best mastered the do-it-yourself ethic became the Internet’s first pioneers.
'The Web flourished almost entirely through the ethic and practice of self-teaching,' Pink argues.
The Internet is already playing a pivotal role in the new free agent education movement, providing a vast do-it-yourself library of resources and networks as well as sparking the development of online colleges, where independent scholars can easily hook up with free agent teachers. But Pink’s 'learning groupies' also search for knowledge in real time and space, at conferences, in book clubs, and with other small groups.
The big losers in all this, of course, are the elite universities and those public education institutions—and their students—that place a higher value on degrees than on creativity. 'The students who make it to elite colleges are generally those who’ve proved most adroit at conventional (read: outdated) schooling,' writes Pink. 'That could become a liability rather than an advantage.'
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