It’s Time for an “All of the Above” Education Policy

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

I’m not a politician or an energy analyst so I will not get into President Obama’s "All of the Above Energy Policy" – I simply don’t know enough about the issues to either support or critique it. What I do know about is education, and I believe that it is time to draw inspiration from the "All of the Above Energy Policy" to formalize an "All of the Above Education Policy," which would diversify our education options to provide a more viable, stable, and affordable educational future for America.

A Bit About "All of the Above"

The main point of the "All of the Above Energy Policy" is that we need to look at every possible solution, innovation, cost saving measure, and established educational institution to form a comprehensive plan for educating all Americans. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education could take a more active role in overseeing "All of the Above" in the same way that the federal government sets regulations for interstate highways.

A Hodgepodge System
There has never been a unified plan for American education as a whole. We have old world universities founded by monarchs, one room school houses, autonomous mass-education public school systems, private colleges, state supported universities, independently run community colleges, for-profit career colleges, religiously affiliated schools at all levels, independent pre-schools, largely non-educationally-focused day care and after school programs, and a burgeoning landscape of DIY and informal learning; Almost none of these types of institutions knows or cares what the others are doing.

In fact, the “education system” would barely qualify as a system at all from a strict systems design perspective. They are all separate, autonomous sub-systems that only interact in the most superficial of ways. It is no wonder that the "system" is in crisis with escalating costs, competing and conflicting missions, students who are ill prepared to succeed at the next level, and no real understanding of how any of these systems fits in with the economic needs of society as a whole. We have a very complex jumble of entities and there is a real need for a concerted effort to at least make the expectations at each level and for each type of institution clear, or we need to redesign the entire mishmash and formalize the relationships between different types of institutions.

There are examples of interactions among these sub-systems that do work, however, such as dual credit and 2-2 programs. Taking note of the ways that these successful collaborations work could be informative for establishing an "All of the Above" system.

There is a reality to be dealt with here – we have a loosely intertwined system that has grown up organically over the course of several hundred years, and that does not lend itself to natural communication among the various entities. Some of the institutions, such as those of the formal higher education system are reluctant to acknowledge others such as DIY and informal learning because of the threat that these new models pose to the establishment. This type of conflict is the biggest obstacle to an “All of the Above Education Policy.” The competition and conflict between levels and types of institutions in the education system needs to be reined in if education is going to survive and evolve into a true system that considers individual learners and the economic and social systems that it is educating them for. There are three possible solutions:

  • Blow It Up – There are some who advocate for abolishing the current education system and replacing it with a new and improved one. Most often this means privatization of the entire concept of education. Recreating the entire education system from scratch would be an ideal solution – it would allow for a fully designed and uniform experience for learners at every level and with every possible interest in or need for learning. The problem with starting over is that there is too much institutional inertia in organizations that have gone largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Not to mention the complete political nightmare it would be to redesign a system when people and politicians can’t even agree that everyone should be educated (Marquis, 2012, Please, Call Me an Education Snob!).
  • Wait and See – This is probably the preferred choice of most educational institutions. The thinking here is that the problems with education will work themselves out through the usual piecemeal process that has been at play since before the founding of the country.  It is pretty clear that this solution is not working. In fact, it is actually working so poorly that a recent Council on Foreign Relations taskforce headed by Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice found that our current education system is a national security risk.
  • “All of the Above” – The rejection of the two previous solutions leaves us with only one other (aside from just abandoning education as a basic right of civilized society) – to consider every possible solution, type of education, and innovative approach to learning to provide the widest possible audience with the most relevant and useful education. Broad governmental oversight of such an initiative would be essential to making an "All of the Above" solution effective and efficient.

What Does "All of the Above" Mean for Education
To quote President Obama, "we can’t just keep relying on the old ways of doing business" ( In keeping with his plan for an "All of the Above Energy Policy," an "All of the Above Education Policy" would aim to research, fund, and develop every possible source of American education. This means investing in everything from pre-K education and familial outreach, to school infrastructure, teacher training, informal education startups, private K-12 schools, universities, and for-profit career colleges, as well as in new and innovative technologies for learning like video games, the Khan Academy, Udacity, and establishing a national policy for ubiquitous Wi-Fi access and computers for every child.

The creation of a formal "All of the Above Education" policy or the expansion of the supervisory powers of the Department of Education would be a first step in establishing an effective, integrated American Education System. Formal acknowledgement of informal learning, possibly through the Digital Badges System, and an accreditation process that accounts for all types of learning – formal, informal, on-the-job, military, and DIY – would have to follow soon after. Finally, an overall education integration architecture would need to be crafted that would provide a map for how different entities should integrate. This roadmap should consider curricular options available for all types of institutions and determine how they can best integrate with one another to provide the most cost efficient and effective educational path for each individual.

But "All of the Above" education means more than just utilizing every possible source of learning to our national advantage. It also means educating ALL of our citizens so that everyone can contribute to the economy, to national security, and to helping to develop the future innovations that will help us meet the other challenges facing us, such as a global energy crisis. It means cultivating a national ethos of intellectualism in which learning is valued and supported by all of our political, social, and economic institutions. We need to think of education and learning as the foundational values that lead to success and prosperity in, "All of the Above!"