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The Truth About the New Consensus on American Education

‘Collective illusions’ prevent us from seeing that Americans want more non-college pathways to success. It’s time to meet this felt public need.
March 10, 2023
The Truth About the New Consensus on American Education
Graduation Day at New York University, New York City, May 1986. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Education is one of the oldest battlefields in the culture wars, and in today’s fraught political environment, it’s sometimes hard to imagine it as anything else. The subject seems to create divisions everywhere: It pits left against right, old against young, teachers against students, and drags in still other groups of largely unwilling combatants.

Certainly, there are differences that divide us. But focusing on these flashpoints obscures important and pressing big-picture questions about what Americans want from education. If we shift our attention to these, we can begin to see an emerging consensus—one broad enough to include Americans of all ages and political persuasions.

Surveys of both the U.S. general public and Gen Z Americans specifically (that is, those born between 1997 and 2012) indicate broad agreement that K-12 education should not be primarily thought of as a step along the way to “college for all,” but should instead help young people learn practical, tangible skills that can be used on a variety of vocational paths. Reconceiving K-12 education to align with this consensus entails a renewed emphasis on both fundamental educational skills and character building. It also involves “opportunity pluralism,” which means promoting a wider array of pathways to opportunity and life success instead of assuming that every one of today’s kindergarteners is destined to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Revealing this hidden consensus about the purpose of K-12 education among Americans across generational divides is an important step toward ending the singular focus on the college degree that prevents young people from seeing the full spectrum of opportunities available to them, including those that exist off the college-bound track. College will still be a significant milestone for many, of course, but embracing a paradigm of opportunity pluralism requires many additional routes to adult success.

What’s the next step? A reality check—specifically, taking stock of the collective illusions that keep us from embracing a more holistic vision for education in this country.

Recognizing Our Collective Illusions

The term “collective illusion” refers to a curious social phenomenon wherein people assume there is a gap between their private priorities or beliefs and those of the general public; as a result, they often override their private priorities to avoid public judgment. For instance, a person might think: “I value more time with my family than I do career advancement, but I know all my coworkers put career first, so I will conceal my preference for family time and act as though my priorities match those of my peers.” What if almost everyone feels the same way, but they all adjust their private priorities to match the status quo? That’s a collective illusion.

It turns out that collective illusions are everywhere in discourse about American education, and further, those illusions effectively conceal the basis for a broad reform coalition. It’s now possible to study some of these illusions in more detail thanks to work being done by Populace. The Massachusetts nonprofit used interviews and focus groups to identify 57 attributes describing the purposes of K-12 education, and from this data, they created the Purpose of Education Index. (Full disclosure: Some of the survey reports mentioned in this piece were provided financial support by my employer, the Walton Family Foundation, and Populace receives general support from the foundation.)

The index brings into view how much the assumed consensus on education sometimes diverges from the actual beliefs of most Americans. For example, most of those surveyed for the index do not believe that preparing young people for college should be a priority-level goal of K-12 education: Respondents collectively ranked it 47 out of the 57 options. But those same respondents think most of their fellow Americans do think it is an important goal, giving it a perceived societal ranking of third out of 57. I’ll repeat that: A representative sample of Americans rank college preparation near the bottom of a list of goals for K-12 education, yet they think Americans at large rank it near the very top.

This is a textbook collective illusion.

Another example of a collective illusion comes from those attributes associated with individualized learning. The general population ranks providing students the ability to choose their courses based on their own interests ninth on its priority list, and puts giving students whatever time they need to learn a new concept or skill just a few spots lower, at 13. Compare those rankings with their perceived societal priority: They were ranked 31 and 52, respectively.

Finally, one of the largest collective illusions about K-12 goals has to do with students demonstrating character, which we associate with qualities like honesty, kindness, and having integrity and a sense of ethics. For the four years that Populace has surveyed Americans, the perceived societal importance of education helping students demonstrate character has hovered around the middle, with its current societal rank 26 out of 57. But Americans have consistently ranked it as a top 10 personal priority; for respondents in 2022, it ranked third.

These findings—about collective illusions concerning the importance of college preparation, individualized learning, and character in K-12 education—provide us with three starting points for a cross-generational conversation how our education system can better prepare young people to flourish.

The Actual Consensus on K-12 Education

First, K-12 schools need a priority reset. The Populace results show that among K-12 priorities, college preparedness has dropped from the tenth-highest priority before the pandemic to 47 out of 57. The number-one overall priority among respondents in 2022 was helping students to “develop practical skills”—but only one in four (26 percent) respondents think schools are achieving that goal.

Another survey documents that nearly three in four (74 percent) of Gen Z agree that “I want to learn skills that prepare me for jobs that will be in demand.” And still another survey shows that more than 1 in 3 teenagers (36 percent) have changed their post–high school plans since the pandemic began, with matriculation at a four-year university taking the biggest dip among the options: 14 percent fewer respondents are still planning to enroll. (Last year, a quarter of graduating seniors reported changing their plans, according to a further survey; fewer than one in five had reported doing so in the same survey conducted in spring 2020.)

It makes sense that Americans’ top priorities aim at real-world proficiency and success rather than college readiness. In addition to developing “practical skills,” these include being able to “problem solve and make decisions,” “demonstrate character,” and “demonstrate basic reading, writing, and arithmetic,” all top-performing goals in the Populace index. It’s not surprising, then, that an Echelon Insights survey reports that nearly six in ten respondents (56 percent) would prefer that schools rethink how they educate children and create new ways to teach children rather than attempt to get back to how things were before the pandemic.

Second, the public, Gen Z, and employers are de-emphasizing the value of a college degree. Another Populace survey confirms what other polls report: A majority (52 percent) of Americans believe higher education is headed in the “wrong direction,” while only 20 percent believe it’s headed in the “right direction.” Two in three (67 percent) believe that colleges put their institutional interest first, compared to putting first either students (9 percent) or the greater good (4 percent). This falling trust in and growing cynicism about postsecondary institutions correlates with a new skepticism about the value of the four-year degree as a work credential: A Gallup survey reports that seven in ten Americans believe that employers should hire job candidates based on skills and experience even if those candidates lack a college degree, though fewer than half of respondents say that their employers do so.

This finding dovetails with another one: Current Gen Z high schoolers don’t see college through the same rose-colored glasses as prior generations. Five national surveys conducted between February 2020 and January 2022 found that as of January 2022 around half (51 percent) are considering attending a four-year college, 20 percentage points down from a 71 percent high in May 2020, while nearly a third prefer a different educational path to the one that leads through a four-year college. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the percentage of high school graduates enrolling directly in college declined from 66.2 percent in 2019 to 62.7 percent in 2020. An Associated Press headline summarizes the situation: “Jaded with education, more Americans are skipping college.”

Additionally, while Gallup’s respondents are largely skeptical that this is happening at their companies, many employers are no longer using a college degree as the gatekeeper credential for jobs. Google, IBM, Apple, and Bank of America among others have shifted from degree-based to skill-based hiring, evaluating a person’s job readiness by their capabilities and competencies and then matching them to a job—especially for positions that are hard-skills intensive, such as software engineers. And a strong majority of employers (68 percent) and Gen Z Americans (58 percent) agree that organizations should hire individuals from non-degree pathways. Skills-based hiring expands the labor pool—especially for minorities, since the college degree hiring bias eliminates 55 percent of Latino and 65 percent of African American potential applicants, as well as 66 percent of rural residents and 61 percent of veterans who might otherwise qualify for jobs based on skills they have.

Third, Americans want a personalized approach to education that includes more options and pathways. In their Purpose of Education Index, Populace reports that Americans place a high priority on giving students the unique supports they need (number 5) and allowing them to choose courses based on individual interest (number 9) rather than giving each student the same type of support (number 34) or having them study the same courses throughout their educational experience (number 54). Americans are strong believers in mastery learning, where students advance to the next task or assignment after having demonstrated that they have a handle on the current one (number 7). These priorities conflict with the standard approach taken in most American schools, which, in combination with the disruption brought on by the pandemic, might help explain why seven in ten (71 percent) respondents say more things should change in the education system than stay the same, while two in ten (21 percent) say that “nearly everything” should change.

Americans consistently say they want a greater breadth of opportunity at every level of the education system. A Tyton Partners survey reports that more than 70 percent of parents are interested in new in- and out-of-school programs to round out their children’s education. Most parents (59 percent) in Tyton’s survey name academic achievement as their overall priority for their kids’ school-based education; comparable majorities want out-of-school experiences to help develop the young person’s passion for a specific subject (52 percent) and to help them develop a strong sense of self (53 percent).

Similarly, an American Compass/YouGov survey reports that more than eight in ten parents (85 percent) “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that there should be “more educational options available for my child,” including pathway programs—for example, a 3-year apprenticeship after high school leading to a “valuable credential and a well-paying job.”

Respondents in this survey appear eager for schools to adopt a practice that has long been controversial: “tracking” within high schools. While in the past tracking has led to sorting students into pathways according to race, class, or other discriminatory categories, American Compass characterized tracking more equitably: “offer[ing] students different pathways based on their aptitudes and interests [and] one that should set a goal of bringing all students along to the same endpoint, which is typically preparation for college.”

Anticipating that some might balk at the negative implications of the term “tracking,” the survey presented half of the respondents with that word and half with an alternative phrase, “diverse pathways.” The terminology proved irrelevant: Overall, 86 percent of parents support this approach regardless of whether it was described as “tracking” or “diverse pathways.” Young adults were similarly supportive. Opinion varied little across classes, with lower-income parents more likely to support “tracking” (74 percent) than “diverse pathways” (65 percent). The desire to use the word “tracking” seems consistent with other findings summarized above: namely, the general public’s consensus on the value of useful skills and practical outcomes and the importance of helping an individual progress towards those skills and outcomes.

An Opportunity Program

After we see through our collective illusions to identify the broad consensus on what Americans truly prioritize in education, we are positioned well to start the constructive work of developing a K-12 opportunity program that can reset the current education system to align with the American public’s values and aspirations. This opportunity program is based on a more personalized approach to education, and it provides more options and pathways for young people (including the college pathway, but not elevating it over other possibilities).

The program has two features: an “opportunity equation” and opportunity pluralism.

The essential elements of an opportunity equation are what individuals know and who they know—knowledge and networks of relationships. Opportunity comes about where these intersect, but they aren’t simple givens for anyone: Both knowledge and relationships require the habitual investment of time and effort—they take work and practice. Those willing to put in the work, though, develop moral strengths and habituate themselves to prosocial behavior, which sets them on a path not only to opportunity, but to human flourishing. This idea can be rendered in the form of a simple “opportunity equation”: knowledge + networks = opportunity.

The opportunity equation finds a natural complement in opportunity pluralism, a way of thinking about equal opportunity that emphasizes providing individuals with a variety of credentialing pathways to work, career, and vocation. The idea is to remove bottlenecks that constrain access to work opportunities while providing alternate educational possibilities. Making the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic in this way would enable individuals to pursue work opportunities more freely according to labor-market demands rather than arbitrary or superfluous requirements without a clear relation to skill or employers’ needs.

The paths that would be opened up by such an approach include apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary and other training institutions; job placement for on-the-job training; career academies; boot camps for acquiring discrete knowledge and skills; and staffing and placement services. In short, opportunity pluralism aims to ensure that every American—regardless of background or current condition—has multiple viable ways of acquiring both the knowledge and the relational networks they need for jobs, careers, and human flourishing.

State leaders are expanding the available menu of educational choices and creating new ones to make this opportunity agenda a reality. This includes open enrollment across school district boundaries, vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts (ESAs). ESAs are especially popular: In the ten states that have ESA programs, families can tap state education funding for a variety of public and private school costs, including private school tuition, tutoring, after school programs, and community college. Having seen the results, other governors are now proposing new ESA programs in their own states. While the model has its critics, the net result of ESAs has been to produce a more pluralistic K-12 system with more educational options for families and students.

The benefits of a program that combines the “opportunity equation” with opportunity pluralism go far beyond developing students’ economic preparedness. Such a program is more holistic; it upholds the relational aspects of success without downplaying the technical or material dimensions, creating a more complete account of individual and societal wellbeing, the goals of any serious economic program. We can take the point further: The opportunity program would also help individuals develop an occupational identity and vocational self, and it would foster local civic engagement from employers and other community partners. Finally, it has the potential to provide faster and cheaper pathways to good jobs and meaningful careers. In short, the program can help us better fit the aspirations and talents of our enormously talented public to the needs of our economy, opening a path to prosperity on the societal level even as it makes a more satisfying life available to the individual American worker.

There are flashpoints and many worthwhile debates still to be had on K-12 education issues, of course. But there also is a broad and growing consensus among Americans on the need for a new framework for having those discussions. The opportunity program meets that need by reconceiving of educational opportunity, grounding it in personalization in the contexts of knowledge, relational networks, and pluralism about pathways to opportunity and success. It restores agency to those who have felt constrained by the status quo, and it breaks us out of the collective illusions that have prevented us from speaking up about what we really want from education, helping us to see the new possibilities that have arrived with our new post-pandemic era.

Bruno V. Manno

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy.