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The Big Debate on American Education

Home Schools, the New Private Schools, and Other Non-Traditional Learning

By Oliver DeMille

The current national commentary on American education is split by a major paradox.

On the one hand, nearly all the experts are convinced that our schools must find a way to effectively and consistently teach the values and skills of innovation and initiative.

If we fail in this, everyone seems to agree, the competitiveness of U.S. workers and the economy will continue to fall behind other nations.

As Gary Shapiro wrote:

“Our nation is looking into the abyss. With a blinding focus on the present, our government is neglecting a future that demands thoughtful action.

“The only valid government action is that which invests in our children. This requires hard choices…

“America is in crisis. What is required is a commitment to innovation and growth. We can and must succeed.

“With popular and political resolve, we can reverse America’s decline…. America must become the world’s innovative engine once again; we cannot fail.”

And education is the key.

On the other hand, many of the top education decision-makers seem committed to only making changes when there is a consensus among educators, parents, experts and administrators.

They adamantly criticize any who take bold, innovative initiate to improve the situation.

In the meantime, they wait timidly, albeit loudly, for a consensus which never comes.

Because of this view, the innovative success of many parents in home schools, teachers in small private schools and other non-traditional educational offerings go unnoticed or undervalued by the national press.

The reality is, as Orrin Woodward put it: “If everyone agrees with what you’re doing, it isn’t innovative.”

The growing Global Achievement Gap in our schools, as outlined by Tony Wagner’s book of this title, presents an ominous warning for Americans.

We can change things if we choose, Wagner says, by adopting the following values and skills in our school curriculum: critical thinking, agility, adaptability, initiative, curiosity, imagination and entrepreneurialism, among others.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan quoted Wagner in Foreign Affairs:

“…there is a happy ‘convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our economy safe and vibrant.’”

He also foreshadowed the decades ahead by quoting President Obama:

“The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”

It is difficult to imagine our public schools meeting these lofty needs if our teachers are expected to be anything but entrepreneurial, innovative and agile, when they in fact work in an environment that discourages and at times punishes precisely such behaviors.

It is even more impossible to make the needed changes to our education system if we must wait for everyone to agree on a consensus of action.

Change always comes with a few courageous souls taking the lead, showing what can work, and helping others follow their innovative path.

The only way we’re going to see a burst of innovation and initiative in American education is to start paying attention to the myriad exciting educational innovations already occurring.

As Malcolm Gladwell suggests, the leadership right now in many arenas—including education—is occurring outside the mainstream, led by “Outliers” who just forget the experts and create new and better ways of doing things.

If you are one of these educational innovators—at home or in the classroom—keep taking the lead. You are the future of American success!



Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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