Featured Blog Post: Dr. James Berry
Professor at Eastern Michigan University and Executive Director of International Council of Professors of Educational Leadership
The School District as The Unit of Analysis for Economic Development
Education in America is an institution that has its own organizational framework and, in fact, is government at its best. Education has become a beacon of hope and the great equalizer for all who take advantage of its unique governmental role in creating educational and economic opportunity. More than any institution in America, education serves as the one government body that levels the playing field for anyone who can navigate the “free and appropriate” K-12 system and then transition that knowledge into productive citizenship. E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, one” summarizes, and aptly describes, the diversity of children entering America’s system of education who then apply that knowledge under a government designed to benefit its entire citizen population. American K-12 education is a parallel branch of state and national government that embodies the ideals of America itself.
Yet, the experience of schooling is too often mistaken for knowledge of the educational institution. Being in school and experiencing education isn’t the same as looking at the macro system of education itself and determining how it can best serve children, adults, and communities. American education is a locally controlled community system of schools that stretches across America. It is a system uniquely positioned to play a role in the economic renewal of America in the twenty-first century.
A public school district: Locally governed agency responsible for providing free public elementary or secondary education; includes independent school districts and those that are a dependent segment of a local government such as a city or county. (NCES, 2014)
In 2022 the United States educational system is a decentralized system of 130,000 schools and over 55 million children (Riser-Kositsky, 2019). The single most defining characteristic of this system is that it is organized at the community level. The locally controlled form of education that arose over the past two centuries offers a unique opportunity for re-imagining the role of the school district as a system designed for learning. Fostering economic growth through its organizational design compliments it primary mission as a system for learning.
The School District: A Learning Organization
As standards are utilized and applied for principal and superintendent training (NPBEA, 2019) the focus of those standards—as they should be—are upon training educational leaders at the building and district level to improve academic outcomes. Yet, the school buildings that make up a school district are, organizationally, more than the sum of their academic bureaucratic parts. The standards used by states and accreditation agencies to improve instruction do not encompass the full measure of a school system’s local and regional impact. More significantly, there is potential for extending the school district’s mission as an academic institution to, more broadly, incorporate an economic mission.
For the last century school districts have evolved from a narrow bureaucratic goal of preparing some children as contributing adults into complex systems of learning for all children. The goal of this blog is to suggest that school districts across America are well-positioned—as local and regional resource hubs—to extend their learning missions to encompass economic renewal and revitalization. School districts are already implicitly tasked with supporting economic activity (by graduating productive students, and, often as a large/significant employer in a community). Yet, this implicit support of economic development—if explicitly incorporated into the mission of a school district—has direct economic benefit to the community.
The School District as The Unit of Analysis for Economic Development
The bureaucratic system of education that grew out of the industrial revolution evolved—and continues to evolve—as a system that served society as a core function of government. The decentralized bureaucratic school district arose by society to serve society’s needs in a modern world. High speed internet connectivity is erasing district boundaries and reshaping the very definition of school district. School districts are not monolithic. Re-considering how the school district measures its worth to a community, and how economic and civic development can be incorporated within the mission and organization of the school district, is an evolution of government and education.
Within the U.S. the pursuit of state-sponsored formal education was based upon a locally controlled and community governed, decentralized, bureaucratic model for learning. The premise of this blog is that the local school district can be leveraged to have a direct economic bearing on the community. The boundaries of the bureaucratic face-to-face school district that arose during the twentieth century are, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, an amorphous network that inhibits the educational system from being fully utilized to advance economic development.
It isn’t that economic development is new to education, but it is a radical departure to think of economic development as an extension of the local school district’s original learning mission. In fact, vocational training (i.e., trades such as auto mechanics, carpentry, welding, cosmetology, health care, and air conditioning installation) has long been an extension of the academic curriculum. Yet, there is an opportunity to extend further the role any school district plays in local, regional, national, and international economic policy as well as local economic development. As Price (2022) explains, “Expenditures for education are the largest single budgetary combined expense for state and local governments in the United States. Estimates are that five per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product has normally been spent for all levels of educational service” (p. iv). Redeploying this already sizeable financial commitment to local communities isn’t a shock to the system as much as a rethinking of the role of the school district.
Although schooling is a ubiquitous presence within communities, the school district as a pivotal institution for direct involvement in local economic development is a hard sell for many superintendents. For the last two hundred years the central importance of education—an education that focused on learning—became the core function of the school district. For the last fifty years centering the school district’s responsibility around academic learning has been a critical feature of educational reform. Lynton’s theoretical approach of a more overtly integrated economic development within the university’s mission for learning doesn’t diminish the importance of learning, but more broadly connects learning to commercial outcomes. Lynton’s vision for the university is apropos for the K-12 school district.
A theory of economic development that recognizes the school district as a central organizational contributor for economic development recalibrates the dimensions of K-12 learning to a region or community. Learning is, therefore, recast as knowledge that emanates from an educational system that serves a broader economic function than the today’s typical school district.
Leveraging The School District as Educational and Economic System
Over the last one hundred and fifty years of government/state sponsored schooling, the school district focused its very existence on imparting knowledge. The goal was to always improve student outcomes. Yet, the unstated goal for improving outcomes became increasingly coupled with finding a job upon graduation. Learning and jobs have been implicitly linked for the last one hundred years. This blog makes this link explicit. In the twenty-first century school districts are positioned as economic hubs. They haven’t been recognized as such by the broader community.
Features of the School District as Economic Resource
A corollary of educational opportunity for the individual, is economic opportunity for the community. This is possible only because networked learning has made knowledge intensive business location geographically neutral. Economic development no longer must be considered as only physically or geographically located to be viable. The internet employs, advertises, and sells within a functioning digital economic system. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Ford, Toyota, Tesla, and a host of other companies can network from anywhere at anytime. Where one lives and works is becoming less important for where knowledge is utilized for manufacturing, communication, advanced teaming, retail sales and the applied use of knowledge in a work environment. The bureaucratic form of education in the twentieth century arose as an extension of the industrial revolution’s superior approach to efficiency and effectiveness. Being a virtual employee wasn’t a choice for working thirty years ago. Now, buying and selling virtually is a choice. The infrastructure that powers the local school district is the same infrastructure that undergirds aspects of local economic growth.
A forward-thinking school leader of the 1960’s couldn’t imagine the pedagogical or educational approach to learning as it bears on economic opportunity. Today face-to-face education is an option and not a requirement for learning. Transnational learning is reshaping what the sharing of knowledge looks like in an evolving on-the-ground and virtual environment. Learning delivery is becoming more direct via the internet and more personal. The door has been opened for a rethinking of the school district as an educational institution. The above description is just a small portal into what a school district must consider as it shifts its core mission to support economic development.
Rethinking the School District in 2022
Pinker (2019) in How The Mind Works described the concept of contiguity as a characteristic that explains how the mind makes sense of ideas. Contiguity is described as ideas that are “experienced together get associated in the mind. Thereafter when one is activated in the mind, the other is activated too” (p. 147). Education and learning have been fixed as ideas that resemble the past more than the future. The school district is, organizationally, the physically located and bureaucratically arranged system for the delivery of learning that is connected to an educational past. However, the local school district, as a more focused system for economic development for the 21,000 school districts that serve America’s communities, is an institution waiting to be fully utilized as a resource and hub for economic growth at the local level. The school district needs to be more closely associated with economic development.
K-12 schooling is fixed in the American mind as a education for the citizens of a community. Given the centrality of education as the foundation for, and engine of, economic growth across America, the K-12 school district is an underutilized resource in generating capacity for current, and future, community development.
What was educational reality in the post-WW II era has been altered by an acceleration of change in every facet of life—not only in America—but across the world. Pikety (2014) described a future that will evolve and change.
There is no single variety of capitalism or organization of production in the developed world today: we live in a mixed economy, different to be sure from the mixed economy that people envisioned after World Way II but nonetheless quite real. This will continue to be true in the future, no doubt more than ever: new forms of organization and ownership remain to be invented (p. 807).
Changes in society, and across America, spin off changes that shape expectations of what the K-12 system contributes to its citizens through its unique role in serving the local community. The central role of education in shaping the economic future of a community has been understood as graduation from high school with a diploma. It signifies one’s general ability to become a contributing member of society.
The school district is no longer just a local school district, but a networked national and international hub for learning that has economic implications for a community and a region. Local school districts in America are uniquely positioned to embrace an economic opportunity that goes beyond the singular role they played in the twentieth century. The K-12 school district can be an economic engine for community and regional development.