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Voices from
This Future

Scenario D:
Economic-Driven Pathways Bypass Liberation

In this future, distrust and fragmentation among communities stall institutional responsiveness. Social cohesion is low, with people rarely crossing boundaries of difference to work with others who are not like them. People compete for institutional attention and resources and focus on their own agendas over shared needs. Public institutions attempt to address multiple, diverse needs but are unable to allocate scarce resources effectively.

This situation has created a power vacuum that has allowed the loudest institutional voices to take control of social policy agendas, particularly education. Public education has relinquished its leadership and now takes direction from employers and economic developers as it tries to navigate resource constraints while accommodating diverse and competitive family and community groups. Furthermore, the realities of climate volatility; entrenched economic polarization; and a heavily automated, gig-based economy have underscored a sense of scarcity, driving competition for resources between and within social groups and regions.

The focus of government is almost solely on the economy. Despite widespread challenges, the national policy agenda prioritizes constant economic growth at nearly any cost. With an aging population and global competition looming large, there is an urgency for educational reform to create workforce-ready graduates who can drive growth. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have reconfigured work and careers such that both high-level, creative professional roles and skilled positions require intensive partnering with AI applications and robots.

In order to meet the economic needs of a hyper-capitalist society, public education systems have doubled down on using adaptive learning software applications and personalization strategies to close education gaps and to grow the number of successful graduates who are on track for work and continued training. Large employers champion equity strategies with the primary goal of having a large, productive workforce. They see closing achievement gaps among historically marginalized yet resilient groups and equipping each graduate with the skills necessary for technology-mediated work as winning strategies. Diverse workforces are more creative and innovative, two attributes necessary for an organization to be a leader in the global economy.

In cooperation with employer councils and economic development agencies, education leaders at the state, district and school levels have identified a set of strategic career pathways and performance targets to guide their decision-making, educator professional development and resource allocation. Students wishing to pursue other academic or career paths receive little support. A fragmented and distrustful family and caregiver cohort has little input into these matters.

Curriculum is heavily STEM oriented, with a focus on building skills in entrepreneurship, collaboration and problem-solving. To address students’ diversity and wide range of performance levels, districts have implemented heavily automated adaptive learning software as a foundation for moving through curriculum units and building skills. Data legislation passed in the late 2020s created agreements among schools, employer councils and economic development agencies to share learner performance data for the purpose of streamlining the detailed tracking of learner performance to support growth in the number of employable workers. By senior year, students are required to have a workforce transition plan. Many consult with a regional career counselor (funded by the government or industry) to outline their two-to-four-year transitions into the workforce along one of the strategic career paths. Students who cannot afford a career counselor or whose schools do not provide one use one of many job matching apps that assess skills and specify a transition plan for job placement.

Students’ educational lives are busy and are more standardized across schools than in the 2020s. Teachers are required to rely on adaptive platforms as a foundation for their instruction. Some add project-based and collaborative activities to enrich learning experiences and build a sense of community. Other teachers, however, are content to follow the prescribed curriculum and to rely upon data such as classroom-generated progress metrics to ensure that their students reach their performance targets. Vocal families and caregivers have tried to advocate for culturally relevant curricula, as well as for more engaged, community-based learning, but many have pushed back, stating that these approaches would detract from reaching widespread grade-level performance goals. In an environment focused on economic success, many families and caregivers tend to be sharply focused on figuring out how to give their own kids a leg up. Those looking for learning opportunities that engage learners with cultural identities and knowledge are left to their own time and resources.

Performance targets are oriented around dominant paradigms of knowledge, ways of knowing and success. Dashboards monitor student, teacher, school and district performance through rigorously standardized academic achievement metrics. A narrow perspective defines social-emotional learning and other “whole child” approaches. With automated tools having become able to measure affective and cultural navigation skills, these approaches are primarily used to inform college and career tracking; for example, measures of collaboration, motivation and self-efficacy related to work. Many perceive these “soft skills” and cultural approaches to be secondary to rigorous academic learning and workplace success. At the school and district levels, assessments remain standardized, but some teachers use whatever formative assessments they deem useful in guiding students toward reaching their learning goals and earning certificates of completion. While student test scores have increased and academic achievement gaps have gotten smaller, the experience of school generally feels like training. School often fails to foster the communal experiences of human connection, love and relationships. Students sit down, plug in and follow their designated learning pathways.

An educational focus on performance makes school boards the grounds for competition. Interest groups within school communities pressure board members to advance and fund programs that exclusively address their kids’ learning needs. Often, the loudest and most privileged voices win out, with sophisticated social media campaigns occupying attention. Corporate-controlled social media contributes to this fragmentation and competition by reinforcing polarized communication and fact-free social discourse. Administrators find it difficult to plan for the future while addressing immediate needs. More and more, they have to divert funds into equity and safety efforts, such as ensuring universal access to broadband and learning devices and shoring up remote instruction to prepare for disease outbreaks and climate disruptions. Families of color and caregivers of children with special needs feel stuck in a system that narrowly attends to kids’ academic needs but does not inspire or affirm them. Indeed, it often crushes their dreams.

Voices from This Future

These quotes from fictional personas show what it might be like to live in this scenario.

Scenario Highlights

Key features of “Economic-Driven Pathways Bypass Liberation” are listed below.

Status of Liberatory Education

An extreme lack of social cohesion prevents productive dialogue and collaborative engagements with public institutions that are striving to be responsive. This climate creates barriers to setting any foundations for shared power and to fostering opportunities to co-create culturally relevant and uplifting learning experiences for each student. With public education systems focused on career preparation, individuals are left to seek out liberatory education on their own.

Power Dynamics

Power sits with those who can control the agenda. With economic polarization and climate volatility creating insecurity, employers dominate with a persuasive agenda for academic achievement in service to careers that will drive the economy. Schools, districts and communities have little say about what happens in public schools. Learners who are not able to perform well in the officially sanctioned curricula and or who are looking for opportunities outside of designated career pathways have difficulty finding learning options that support economic and social mobility. For many, greater employability will increase their consumer power and economic stability. Yet the cost may be loss of individual aspiration, cultural identity and belonging.

Potential for Liberatory Education to Spread

Any attempts to systematize liberatory education die on the vine because they are not seen to align with educational agendas that are driven by economic priorities. Liberatory education can spread only through the actions of the individual learners and families who seek it out.

Signals of Change

Signals of change are happening now. They help us see possibilities for this scenario, including what liberatory education looks like in it.

AI-Enabled Adaptive Learning

Digital learning platforms powered with artificial intelligence (AI) can adapt to students’ needs while creating efficiencies by freeing up teachers’ time. The AI-enabled adaptive learning market is poised for growth, with the global market forecast to grow from USD 1.9 billion in 2020 to USD 5.3 billion by 2025.


Meaning “Bald Eagle” in Ojibwe, MIGIZI takes the idea of career pathway and makes it their own. They partner with schools and organizations to create circles of mutual support in which adults and students work together in culturally grounded and participatory activities to foster educational, social, cultural and economic development of Indigenous youth.

AfroRithms from the Future

This inclusive storytelling game intentionally anticipates anti-racist, democratic futures by inviting small groups of players to create alternative worlds centered to the cultural perspectives of Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Up Next:

Chapter 4: Insights and Implications

Current tensions and dilemmas will impact the growth of liberatory education

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