The Enormous Education Industry

Hailey, 7, is a second grader. Her teacher is Mrs. Mangold. Once a week, Hailey goes to Mrs. Aubuchon’s room for art, to the gym for Mr. Johnson’s physical education class, to the music room to learn flute from Mrs. Lutz, and to library class with Mrs. Adams. In Hailey’s school, there are 2 second grade classes, each with 20 students. In total, her K-6 school serves 330 students, and employs 46 teachers, 1 principal, 36 professional support staffers, and 6 more in building maintenance. In total, almost 100 adults work in Hailey’s school.

Hailey knows there are more students, more teachers and more staff in other schools nearby. In fact, there are 11,017 students in her school district, supported by 1,400 professionals.

Worldwide, about 1.3 billion students are enrolled in primary and secondary school. In 2014, UNESCO counted 65 million teachers in the world, and projects 20 million more by 2030 to staff new classrooms and new schools. Assuming a ratio of 2 teachers to 1 non-teaching employee, 40 million new people will be hired.

In all, 120 million people work in K-12 education on 6 continents—roughly the current population of Japan or Mexico. These figures don't include Antarctica (no schools yet), or the many missionary schools on oceanic islands (not part of any continent;). With increasing secondary school enrollment and greater numbers of girls in school, 200 million people employed to teach and operate schools for children in the 21st century seems reasonable.

In this era of improved technology, do 1.3 billion K-12 students require a staff of 200 million people? Why not replace workers with robots? Why not give every student an iPad and an online account—and tell them all to stay home? If technology is so smart—and becoming so much smarter with AI, machine learning and the rest—why do we continue to invest so much money in education? Why do we keep hiring teachers and support staff to advance a 20th century model that’s becoming obsolete?

In part, we do it because 1.3 billion young people need a safe place to go every day while their parents earn money for food, clothing, shelter and a productive future. Certainly, 21st century education requires modernization, but replacing schools with iPads and a global computer network is a weak solution.

Anastasia, 12, moved to the U.S. from Moldova. “I will probably be an elementary school teacher. [Young] kids are kind of like scared to be in school because it’s their first time. Elementary school is the starting place.”

Olivia, age 12 (pictured), moved to the U.S. from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “Last year, my Mongolia school was teaching me English. And this year, in America, when we play at school, there are children here teaching me English.”

School involves much more than sitting in a classroom and doing assignments. Students learn from one another. They interact with lots of different people, and learn how to deal with them. School is an elaborate social experiment, a dynamic microcosm involving hundreds, then thousands of children, teenagers and young adults trying to figure out who they are, what they need to know, and where they want to go in the future.

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