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Looking Backwards: 10 Key Trends That Have Affected Education Over The Last Decade

Feb 5, 2020

It seems like every semester comes with its own set of challenges, seemingly more daunting every year.  In fact, crisis-all-the-time is our new normal, the zeitgeist of our era.  While it would be easy to point to our current national political climate as the central factor in our increasingly difficult educational landscape, the fact is that many of the trends that helped to shape the present were long in the making.

Thus, as we head into a new decade with the future on the line like it never has been before, it might be useful to consider some of the key educational and social trends of the last ten years that have brought us to where we are now.

What are the ten most important educational trends of the last American decade?  Here is my best shot at the inevitably imperfect quick instant history:

**State Disinvestment in Higher Education and Political Push Back: As any of us who work in public higher education know, state funding for two and four-year colleges has declined across the country.  With investment in higher education down nationally by billions of dollars, the end result has been a level of permanent scarcity in American higher education resulting in greater costs, the exploitation of part-time labor, and the increasing pressure to cut funding across the board.  Here in California, we have seen successful push back against this in the form of ballot measures such as Propositions 30 and 55, which taxed the rich to help fund education.  Despite these victories, however, the larger trend persists.

**The Ongoing Enrollment Crisis: From community colleges to four-year universities, the trend has been toward shrinking enrollment for a number of reasons.  While the current low employment rate is a frequently cited cause for lower community college and university enrollments locally and across the country, other factors such as a decline in foreign students and lower overall numbers of high school graduates point to a deeper, long-term issue.  How colleges deal with this new landscape will shape everything from the job market to the ways we educate our students in the coming years.

**The Student Debt Crisis and the Push for Free College: Over the last ten years, student debt in the United States has doubled to reach $1.5 trillion.  The rising costs of getting a college education has made many people start to reconsider whether a college education, long considered the gateway to the American Dream, is worth the cost.  This anxiety and accompanying anger about the prohibitive price tag of college has led to a nationwide push for free college for all.  Here in California we see the beginnings of this at our community colleges and, depending on the national political winds, we may see free college become a reality in our lifetimes.

**Corporate Education Reform Goes to College: For years it was educators in K-12 who had to deal with the hard edge of corporate education reform, whether it was high stakes testing, the push toward charters, or any number of other “disruptions” brought to us by those seeking to impose one form or another of the business model on our schools.  What we have seen over the last decade is the same forces making headway in higher education.  Everything from the mania over student learning outcomes to the completion agenda with its assembly line model and the  push for more and more online education whether or not it adequately serves the student population it is being promoted for—see the rise and fall of Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCS) or California’s online college—came packaged with the promise that higher education was being made more efficient and cost effective.  Of course, the overall lack of effectiveness of the various “innovations” we have had foisted upon us has never prevented the next new idea from some corporate foundation or other from being promoted as manna from heaven.  The art of negotiating this landscape has become as important as teaching effectively.  Indeed, we have to learn to negotiate with it in order to create the space to do the real work.

**The New Civil Rights Movements and the Subsequent Backlash: Black Lives Matter, Immigrants’ Rights, #MeToo, the legalization of gay marriage, and the push to recognize Transgender rights transformed the American social and political landscape for the good AND produced a homophobic, patriarchal, xenophobic, white-supremacist backlash.  There is much to celebrate in the gains and new awareness produced by these movements on multiple fronts, but the ferocity of the hateful backlash of a shrinking, largely older and whiter America has done serious harm.  On this front, it’s clear that the future will be won by a more diverse, tolerant, and equitable America—the only question is how long this will take and how much damage will be done to the body politic before the national demographics ultimately creates a new destiny.  We teach on this battlefield.

**Mass Killing as a “New Normal”:  Along with the routine news of international terrorism, domestic killing in the form of public massacres, school shootings, and other acts of both targeted and indiscriminate mass slaughter have become our new normal.  From Newtown to Paris to Las Vegas to El Paso to Dayton, etc., ad nauseam, images of shooters, frequently lone men, have become the stuff of our all-too-routine nightmares.  We now live in an era of murderous rage and an accompanying political impotence when it comes to meaningful responses.  Sadly, for educators, our workplaces have become ground zero.

***The Assault on Public Education and the Militant Response of Labor: Over the last decade, countless millions of dollars have been spent by corporate education reformers, much of it by, as Diane Ravitch has named them, “the billionaire boys club,” to “disrupt,” defund, and privatize public education.  This historically unprecedented assault on our educational system and, by proxy, the public sphere and democracy is the tip of the spear of the total corporatization of American life.  As disheartening as this never-ending offensive against the democratically controlled institution of public education has been, the wave of teachers’ strikes from West Virginia to Los Angeles and elsewhere along with the strong public support for their struggles is a sign that Americans are not too keen on surrendering their schools to the machinations of the rich just yet. One of the positive ripples in the wake of the teachers’ strike wave has been the accompanying revival of striking as a weapon for American workers elsewhere in the private sector as we saw with the successful autoworkers’ strike and other militant struggles across the country.  The battle continues in earnest.

**Technological and Social Media Addiction: While much attention has been rightfully given to the horrible toll of opioid addiction in America, perhaps even more important socially is the absolute capture of the national mind by the myriad of technological devices and various forms of social media.  The world my 16-year-old son now occupies is fundamentally and permanently transformed from the one I knew as a young man.  I will leave it for the technophiles and Silicon Valley types to sing the praises of the brave new world we occupy.  From our current vantage point, the wages of this sea change, particularly over the last decade, are almost entirely negative with regard to perpetual distraction, the loss of the ability to focus on longer narratives, and the triumph of fast capitalism.  In sum, we have rapidly transformed ourselves into a nation of atomized consumers inseparable from our screens, beyond alienation.  As educators, this makes our jobs both much harder but also crucial as the ability to comprehend longer, more complex narratives and sort through and evaluate the innumerable details our information systems provide us with are now indispensable and endangered.

**The Implosion of the Master Narrative of the Mainstream Media and the Death of Facts: Along with the atomization that is a result of our addiction to social media is a newly intensified siloing when it comes to the consumption of information.  The decline of print media and the growth of alternative sources for news had been happening for years before the past decade, but it was during the 2010s that we saw not just a retreat of news consumers to hermetically sealed ideological silos but an assault on the very idea that there are verifiable facts that maintain their veracity even in the face of one’s chosen political creed.  Trump’s rejection of the facts he hates as “fake news” and his assault on science are easy targets here as is the penchant for conspiracy theories on both the left and right.  A dangerous trend to be sure.  Our role as educators is made more difficult by this trend but it also puts the job of teaching students the difference between fact and opinion and how to think critically at the forefront of our most pressing duties if we still believe that we should be producing educated citizens for democracy rather than simply serving as a kind of job training.

**Living the Climate Catastrophe in Real Time (the Naturalization of Ecocide):  Even as a shrinking group of our fellow citizens clings to climate denialism, a clear majority of Americans see that climate change is happening and know it needs to be addressed to avoid dire consequences.  On a regular basis we watch catastrophic fires and storms, and read about melting polar ice, dying coral reefs, extreme heat, species extinction, and other horrifying phenomenon and future perils.  This has spurred some of the most inspiring global protests by young people and others seen in years and forced many usually reclusive scientists to raise the alarm.  And yet, as with our endless wars, the political response has been dismayingly inadequate and too many of us have naturalized the bad news as some kind of inevitable outcome.  Indeed, over the last ten years there has not been anything close to a political proposal commensurate with the existential threat we face until quite recently.  As we pivot toward the next decade, educators will need to up the ante on teaching about climate change, its consequences, and what we need to do to save the planet or we’ll waste the last window we have to create a livable world for the future.


by Jim Miller


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