Point of View

Reforming education requires knowing the customers: all of us

June 13, 2014 

North Carolina’s K-12 and higher education scenario is overwhelmingly troubling. It is even more so when considering the needs of the state’s rapidly growing Hispanic population.

At a recent historic Hispanic education forum, state education leaders said that, in addition to having to address the support the growing number of low-income students need to be successful and the need for more parental involvement, the state is facing the crude reality of continuing teacher attrition and a double-digit decline in teacher education degree program enrollment.

Meanwhile, the massive spread of global information tools and technologies has positively affected human capacities to receive and share information and to act.

Some outcomes of this are bottom-up movements like the Occupy Movement and North Carolina’s own Moral Mondays. Such social involvement has brought clarity about common critical issues that many perceive are at the core of today’s social crises. Many are demanding change from top decision-makers in the financial, political, policymaking and private sectors. And everyone is demanding change in education. Implied is the belief that these sectors matter, and that they need to be reinvented.

What could be more appropriate than to consider the individual empowerment factor that many are using to actually participate in the decision-making process to reinvent education and at the same time become better citizens of the world? Recent findings from the Council on Competitiveness indicate that the customer is the innovator and the one who creates value.

Acknowledging this is already creating value for the private sector and making our state more competitive.

Who is the customer in education? The answer is all of us.

The council’s survey also pointed out that education is changing from a teacher-centric approach to a learner-centric approach and that this is one of the most bothersome challenges for many – it implies change in personal and institutional attitudes and behavior. The survey reported that, in higher education, 85 percent of the learners are nontraditional learners. Because of their traditional mode of teaching, education institutions are educating only 15 percent of the students. The survey also found that the nontraditional student wants flexibility and adaptability and experiential and global learning.

So looking at this picture evokes questions about how as customers of education, North Carolinians are going to go about transcending old attitudes and behavior, innovating and creating value.

Clearly, it makes sense that an initial step is for everyone to recognize their knowledge, experience and wisdom and the state’s diversity of people and sectors as bottom-line assets. An effective collaborative process would have to include the active participation of children, young people, adults, men and women; Republicans, Democrats and tea partyers; and black, brown, yellow and white people of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. This way of ongoing and practical engagement, by itself, makes for the kind of experiential and global learning opportunity that the “customer” wants.

Such a process would need to be sustainable and supported by flexible and adaptable operational mechanisms and practices. The image of a summer living laboratory environment comes to mind as the place where participants could explore, extract and test new learning.

No one sector or single institution can bring this kind of process to fruition. Each, though, can bring to bear its physical, financial and human resources infrastructures to assist particular needs. Between existing summer programs, education and social agencies, and corporations, North Carolina has the know-how to, for example, coordinate and administer regional efforts to handle big data and establish crowd-sourcing networking solutions, to design and test classroom and community tools and practices, and to add to the body of knowledge for further change.

The unintended benefits of a summer living laboratory approach like this are many. Never mind the job creation, teacher recruitment and retention, and student and parent engagement possibilities such a scenario offers.

Perhaps the fact that we are today equipped with information tools and technologies for everyone in highly diverse communities is so that we can effectively participate in the reinvention of education. Perhaps this is also the scenario where we can finally advance the human relations issues that have clutched at our hearts for so long and that interfere with the learning experience, in particular, of low-income and minority students.

After all, as education leaders at the Hispanic forum declared, “a better educated citizenry brings about higher levels of quality of life,” which goes hand in hand with what we all want for North Carolina.

Aura Camacho-Maas is a William C. Friday Fellow for Human Relations.

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