K-12 Education’s Crisis of Relevance


By Michael C. Johnson

The extent that we can assure that every American child receives a relevant and contemporary education today will dictate the health of our economy, our global standing and the general welfare of our society for the remainder of this century. Unfortunately, we are not able to offer such a guarantee, not while the American system of education is in crisis; what I term “a crisis of relevance.” Based on my professional experience, hundreds of observations and scores of conversations with educators and students alike, I believe this crisis is rooted in four areas.

An over-reliance on antiquated assumptions and practices. When one visits a traditional neighborhood K-12 school, they are quickly struck by the familiarity of the place. It doesn’t matter whether the visitor is a recent graduate or hasn’t had the reason or opportunity to step inside a school building for several decades; a sense of habitual and common experiences will be obvious. Students are divided into groups based primarily on their age. These groupings will commonly consist of 30 (+/-) students in the presence of one adult – the skilled content specialist, the keeper of wisdom. These settings are frequently organized by rows of student seating, facing in a common direction – the teacher. And it is the teacher who is talking, dispensing information with the expectation that the students will absorb it and retain it long enough to regurgitate it on an upcoming assessment successfully.

This description of teacher-dominated classrooms is as accurate today as 50, 75, or 100 years ago. We rely on what is familiar, on what worked for us. Within this comfort of familiarity, teachers today continue to teach as they were taught.

We fool ourselves into believing that because some of the tools have changed, we are offering a contemporary and meaningful educational experience. Blackboards and chalk have been replaced with whiteboards and dry erase markers. Slide rules are out. Calculators are in. Electronic tablets are the new pencil. But, despite these new devices available to students and their teachers, which we label “progress,” schools look remarkably as they have historically, and the instructional strategies being used remain virtually unchanged.

The biggest issue is that the students sitting in these classrooms are not 20th century learners. We teach in very traditional ways to a population of students, the post-millennial generation, who are not traditional. They value experiences, individuality, uniqueness and an entrepreneurial spirit. They tend to look forward, rather than focus on the past. The disconnect between the content and methodology of what is taught, and the true interests, needs and learning styles of these 21st century learners contribute to a lack of relevance; the state of being able to derive personal meaning and connection with the experiences they are required to participate in. When students cannot find that person-to-content connection, their genuine engagement, a key element for learning, suffers.

Not only do today’s kids have different learning preferences, but they will also inherit a totally different and rapidly changing world. 21st century learning outcomes must accompany this fluid reality. How can the education system possibly believe they are adequately preparing students with the skills they’ll need in the future when futurists tell us that 70-80% of the current jobs in our economy will disappear in the next 20 years? While there will be new jobs, we don’t know what they’ll be, what problems they will address or the technologies they’ll deploy. The truth is that a complete education for today’s students is more than memorizing facts.

In its 2015 “New Vision for Education” report, the World Trade Organization cited sixteen specific traits, skills and competencies all students need to develop for a successful experience in our complex and diverse global economy.

Foundational Literacies: how students apply core skills to everyday tasks.

  • Language literacy
  • Numeracy literacy
  • Scientific literacy
  • Information technology literacy
  • Cultural and civic literacy

Competencies: how students approach complex challenges.

  • Critical thinking/problem solving
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

Character Qualities: how students approach their changing environment.

  • Curiosity
  • Initiative
  • Persistence/grit
  • Adaptability
  • Leadership
  • Social/cultural awareness

While our traditional education system might get a passing score on the Foundational Literacies, it is woefully deficient in the other two categories. There’s a lot of work ahead to fully realize these expectations.

Standards play an important role in any organization. They define the values, expectations and aspirations of the enterprise. In the world of education, standards offer clear and definable expectations of what students must experience and be accountable for. However, the current operational climate of standardization is stifling our best intentions. This standardized education system has evolved to value efficiency over efficacy. It is characterized by a “one size fits all” approach to teaching and learning. While done in the spirit of offering equitable opportunities for children, standardization stands in the way of achieving equity: providing each child the unique resources they require to be successful. Standardization has de-personalized the educational experience for many of our children, including measuring their achievement against the artificial, and often biased, industry-produced standardized tests and assessments. If we are all to be treated identically, if “one size fits all” and I don’t fit, how can I, the learner, find the experience relevant?

Children are, by their very nature, curious creatures. Curiosity is a driving force in their desire and ability to propel themselves forward, to try new things, to explore and wonder. These are some of the underlying characteristics of intrinsic motivation. Yet, as they enter school and advance through the system, students realize that what interests them is secondary as their curiosity and intrinsic motivation are overlooked. The system dictates what they should learn and care about. Gradually, the reason to achieve is devolved to the acquisition of a letter grade – a bragging right for some, a reason to quit for others. A relevant and contemporary education cannot be achieved by ignoring the interests, the curiosity and the fundamental, intensely personal reasons why children choose to learn.

I have not intended this piece to be anything other than a wake-up call by identifying and describing what is contributing to a “crisis of relevance” in our nation’s schools: a set of circumstances that, if left unchecked, will diminish the assurance of a relevant and contemporary education for all children, regardless of their circumstances or zip code. Instead, my true and honest intention is to offer hope through a call to action. If we can recognize the problem, we can confront the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving the desired outcome; giving kids the chance to be active participants in their learning and to find relevance in this experience called “school.”

Addressing this crisis will require vision, courage and commitment from school, district and community leaders. They will need to look past what they think they know, past long-standing traditions, or the comfort of their own experience; relying instead on what they hear from their constituents – paying special attention to what students communicate as their needs and aspirations.

At the time of his retirement in July 2017, Michael C. Johnson had served students over a 35 year career in public education: 14 years as a performing arts teacher and 21 years as a building administrator. He remains a vocal advocate of the inclusion of quality arts experiences for all children and is a champion of student-centered approaches to assure a high quality and relevant education for every child. As a speaker, author and education advocate, Johnson publishes weekly articles at theeducationkidsdeserve.com. His 2017 book, The Education Kids Deserve, is available from Amazon or his website. Johnson earned his bachelor’s degree in music education at Willamette University and his master’s in educational leadership from the University of Portland, with additional administrative studies at Lewis and Clark College and Portland State University.








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