An abundance agenda for education | John Watson | 5 Min Read

October 17, 2022

Policy advocates and political parties in the U.S. run into the hard reality of public opinion (aka voters) when they push ideas that limit options and choices.
Both parties take these limiting views on some issues while pushing freedom of choice on other issues. Some conservatives want to limit who you can marry and, at the extremes, what sorts of contraception you can use. Some liberals want to limit the types of cars you can drive, and, at the extremes, whether you can eat beef.
I’m leaving aside whether these arguments for limitations have any merit. The reality is, when you push a policy of restriction, you are going to run into strong opposition. It’s possible to successfully implement a restrictive policy, but if you can advocate for the same goals with fewer restrictions, you are more likely to succeed.
The Democratic party appears to be adapting to and acting on this realization in the climate bill that is making its way toward being signed as I’m writing this (August 2022). Whereas over many decades liberals have talked about climate policies in terms of restricting cars, fossil fuels, and certain behaviors, this bill is focused on creating abundant energy—but from clean, renewable sources instead of from carbon-emitting sources. It’s not a coincidence that this bill is easily the most impactful climate policy that has gotten through the U.S. political system, in part by gaining support from moderate Democratic Senators.
It’s not just climate policy. On housing, transportation, and other issues, policy wonks are beginning to act upon what some are calling an “abundance agenda.” The idea is that across many issues, liberals of old have often come across as scolds telling people what they can’t do. Abundance advocates believe that the better approach from both a policy and political perspective is to push for alternatives that reach goals without restricting choices. We need, and can build, more housing—to solve homelessness and high housing costs. We need and can build more transportation—both highways and trains. We need more doctors, to help lower the cost of health care.
Why does this work? Two reasons:

  1. In almost all cases, somebody is (or maybe lots of people are) happy with the status quo, and
  2. People hate losing what they have more than they value gaining something new

I believe that the same approach can and should be taken in education.
Education reforms that try to change large portions of public education run up against the fact that most people are happy with their local schools, and that this is especially true of affluent, suburban parents who hold disproportionate political power.
Take the Common Core. The effort to implement it failed despite massive investments of time, money, and effort. There are many reasons why it failed, but I believe that a significant aspect is that some suburban parents perceived Common Core as a threat to the status quo in the schools that they liked.
Instead of pushing reforms that appear to threaten existing options, advocates for change in education should push for change that leads to more choices—and an abundance of opportunities—for everyone.
A blog post from Bellwether Education Partners raises this idea, but I think it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In fact, I fear that the article mostly applies the term “abundance agenda” to pre-existing school choice measures.
Instead, a true abundance agenda for education would do several things:

  • It would stress that choice options will not impact the suburban schools that affluent parents like.
  • It would explain that these choices are simply providing the same options to the students and parents who don’t have these options.
  • It would reframe the admissions arguments about the most selective schools in major urban districts—the flashpoint of much controversy—to questioning why EVERY student who wants a great school can’t enroll in one.

An abundance agenda applies not just at the broad policy level but also to many individuals and organizations working in education. For example:

  • Schools of choice should not have significant long-term waiting lists. We hear of many hybrid schools, for example, that can’t meet the demand they have and must deny enrollment to students. Why? A school has to plan for a certain number of students and can’t accommodate an unanticipated surge in the short term. But why are districts that run these schools not meeting demand from their students and families over multiple years?  An abundance approach would say “we’re creating schools that are of interest to students and we will grow their capacity—or add new schools—to meet demand.” This would of course not be limited to online or hybrid schools.
  • Public providers of online courses should be supported to meet demand, whether via state online learning programs or course choice policies. Very few state supplemental course providers are financially supported in this way. Florida Virtual has been supported financially by the state at a far higher level than all other state supplemental programs, and the result is that FLVS has 10x the enrollments of most state programs—suggesting that latent demand exceeds supply in 49 states.
  • Teacher unions should support their members who are interested in working in hybrid and online schools, or for state online course providers. Why wouldn’t they? Are online and hybrid teachers not worthy of support as much as traditional classroom teachers? 

There are political reasons why none of these actions are taking place. In part, however, it may be that nobody is making the larger argument that education should pivot toward meeting the full demand that students and families are demonstrating.
The largest climate change bill in history is passing in part because advocates stopped saying “turn down your thermostat” and “no more oil drilling.” Instead, they started supporting the goal of abundant energy, while Tesla and the Ford F150 Lightning have made electric cars and trucks in-demand status items.
Advocates for education reform would do well to study these messaging tactics and apply them to public education.

This post was originally published on the Digital Learning Collaborative blog on August 18, 2022. Read more of John Watson’s work on Intrepid Ed News.

John Watson

As Evergreen’s founder and primary researcher, John Watson is responsible for conducting, writing, and presenting research as well as providing testimony on digital learning matters to state boards of education, legislatures, and charter school commissions. He has extensive knowledge and experience based on his two decades working in online learning and education technology. This background has afforded him a wide-reaching network across the spectrum of education professionals, policymakers, and subject matter experts as well as the ability to provide insightful, dimensional analysis and recommendations. After earning his MBA and a MS in natural resource policy at the University of Michigan, John went to work for one of the first Learning Management System companies, eCollege, in early 1998. He launched eCollege’s K-12 division, called eClassroom, and managed eClassroom’s research and business development. This experience was the springboard for John’s independent consulting in environmental policy and education which evolved into what Evergreen Education Group is today. John is deeply moved by stories of students and teachers who have been positively impacted by technology in classrooms, online courses, and innovative schools. He strives to tell these stories accurately and to clearly explain the challenges inherent with digital learning in order to bring an honest, balanced perspective to Evergreen’s insight and recommendations. His ability to approach research and relationships with consideration for bias and hierarchy makes him a natural connector between information and people. John has presented and led panel discussions at numerous conferences and convenings. In addition to his research for Evergreen, John writes regularly about various issues related to digital learning and is a contributing author of the Handbook of Research on K-12 Online and Blended Learning. His and Evergreen’s work has been cited in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Education Week, and eSchool News, and he has also appeared on NBC Nightly News.

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