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Democracy Futures Require New Education Systems

Imag e

After decades of education reforms imposed by political, business, industry, and

philanthropic interests, public schools have not kept pace with the swiftness or

complexities of social change.

May and Sanders (2015) asserted that “Federal and state policymakers are

typically adept at presenting charts and graphs that describe ‘what’ the problem is,

but all too often, there is little to no detail about ‘how’ it will be addressed and

‘who’ is responsible” (p. 13). Education reforms that change curricula and

standardized testing or increase teacher accountability have been based largely

on the concept of “pastness” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 285).

In other words, the underpinning objectives of education reforms have been to restore social norms and roles, as opposed to supporting social evolution towards more diversity and inclusiveness.

Historical evidence of education reforms reveals a lack of sustainable social change (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Horsford, 2011; Labaree, 2010). Public school reformers have attempted to improve student achievement without acknowledging any of the underlying social constructs that were put in place to maintain systems of racial and economic inequality. This oversight has only exacerbated the public’s discontent with public schools and widened opportunity gaps based on race, socioeconomic status, English-language acquisition, and learning ability (Hannah-Jones, 2017).

In his discussion on social evolution from a systems perspective, Banathy (1998) declared “The greatest source of change in social systems is the process of learning” (p.163).

In an attempt to transcend the present reform mindsets, narratives, and political rhetoric lambasting public education systems, it is worthwhile to explore new possibilities for public education systems through the lens of the future.


Orientations towards the past propagate hegemony, determinism, oppression, and privilege. Conversely, present-focused orientations characterize preoccupations with innovation, reforms, strategies, and profits. Despite ongoing talks of change, no effective action actually challenges the status quo.

However, a futures orientation (i.e., foresight) allows for the conversion of individual and collective imaginations to cocreate aspirations of life emancipated from oppression and colonization of the past.

Futures exist in freedom where possibilities are infinite. So far, policymakers and education leaders have exclusively used historical data and narratives to justify new education policies and practices. The only exception to this has been a dogged commitment to integrating technology throughout education systems and in teaching and learning. Without a critical analysis of the meta-histories and the cultural power dynamics that created the narratives about discrepancies in student achievement, education systems will maintain social, economic, and pedagogical inequities. Table 1 illustrates the conceptual and cultural underpinnings within temporal orientations.

The cultures of the Western industrialized world continue to promulgate hegemonic discourses throughout their societies to maintain hierarchies of power undergirded by economic, political, legal, judicial, health, and education systems. Calls for social change over millennia have been met with resistance not only by those in power but by those who benefit from stratified systems. Lawyers have argued in the courts, elected officials submitted bills to legislative bodies, and people have marched in the streets to change policies that disenfranchised and discriminated against non-dominant classes of society.

At present, scientists and technologists have innovated gadgets and written codes to increase production more efficiently, maximize profits, and gain greater access to personal information. While innovations have created new opportunities for some, the struggles for economic and social emancipation persist for many others who have been forced to the margins. As we read today’s headlines of withering civil and reproductive rights, burgeoning dictatorships, and ongoing justifications of White supremacist ideologies, it appears that our current social systems can never catalyze the agency and upward mobility that is due to every being. Nor can these systems protect the natural resources and habitats that are essential for planetary restoration and thriving.

Agents of social change can only be successful when they transcend the weight of past conventions, traditions, and recurring loops of present struggles, and imagine and engage with alternative futures. Fighting for emancipated futures requires vision, creativity, hope, moral grounding, and multiple perspectives.

While a futures-oriented stance does not disavow the past or present, engaging with possible futures invites a broadening of narratives about time orientations and cultures. Futures Studies allows for the investigation of interrelationships of metahistories, and projects them into a coexistent moment that is yet to be cocreated. Future Studies also provides the space for the exploration of political possibilities (Amsler & Facer, 2017). What better opportunity to conduct these investigations than within education systems?


Applying a futures orientation to public education requires a new examination (not simply a re-examination) of the purpose of education, for whom education exists, and how it is to be applied to envision future societies and life. This type of expanded thinking involves perspectives beyond education policies, politics, and funding. Thinking that engages possible futures must anticipate new social systems that promote emancipated, interdependent destinies of a global (and planetary) collective.

Although the future of public education is uncertain, one can infer that continued attempts to reform public education, without addressing the underlying hegemony embedded in these social systems, will continue to perpetuate inequities. Therefore, education system leaders and policymakers must shift their thinking about public schools and the students who attend them.

As such, “The future is important to education because it provides principles and practices that were largely absent from present systems and structures but that hold out numerous options for development and renewal” (Slaughter, 1998, p. 373). Within these opportunities lay aspirations of new policies, new funding models, and new social designs for education systems that support the achievement of all students. Thus, new visions for educating pre-K-12 students must evolve to foster deeper levels of human development and learning (Eisen, 1995; Kegan, 1994), to meet the complexities of future life.

New visions of education can occur by integrating futures thinking and foresight into teacher training and education leadership curricula. Today’s systems of schooling do not prepare students to perceive and think critically about complex and wicked global problems that pose planetary, political, economic, and cultural threats to the very futures in which they will live (Sardar, 2009). Therefore, new leadership and teaching standards must include the capacity for futures thinking, strategic foresight, and the ability to employ futures studies (FS) and critical futures studies (CFS) methodologies.

Having education leaders, educators, and students explore possible futures creates possibilities for scanning potential political or economic systems and institutional/ organizational cultures. This new thinking will necessitate an evolution of curricula to be more interdisciplinary, interactive, and inclusive of broader cultural narratives beyond Eurocentrism.


It might seem farfetched to focus on designing future education systems. However, not doing so will ensure that the fate of this year’s first graders will continue to be left to technocrats, demagogues, and schools that were structured to maintain caste systems.

Leading equitable education systems requires leadership that employs what Fullan (2016) referred to as “the right drivers” including “capacity building, collaboration, [decolonized] pedagogy, and systemic practices” (p. 539). New visioning of public education requires “imagination, anticipation, and aspiration” (Appadurai, 2013, p. 286) and the ability of education system leaders to leverage their “zone of control” (Inayatullah, 2018, p. 21) or influence.

Fortunately, FS and CFS scholars and practitioners are privileged by their adeptness at inter- and transdisciplinarity to investigate possible futures across a broad scope of global social conditions. However, there needs to be an increased focus on school systems and university education programs to engage educators and leaders in discourses about alternative futures. Amsler and Facer (2017) provided a sobering reality about discourses that take multiple alternative futures into account, which “are marginalized or censured within official discourses of educational policy in [Western]…and other marketdominated systems of compulsory education” (p. 9).

As a futurist who has worked in higher education and served in education governance at the K-12 and university levels, I have been a lone voice in beseeching my colleagues to envision futures beyond 3-5 years. Education (particularly public education) needs futurists at conferences, conducting governing board and leadership assessments, and assisting with the design of new educator training and system leadership curricula. If not now, when? If not us, who?


Amsler, S., & Facer, K. (2017). Contesting anticipatory regimes in education: Exploring alternative educational orientations to the future. Futures, 94, 6–14.

Appadurai, A. (2013). The future as cultural fact: Essays on the global condition. Verso.

Banathy, B. H. (1998). Evolution guided by design: A systems perspective. Systems Research and Behavioral Science: The Official Journal of the International Federation for Systems Research, 15(3), 161–172.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education. How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. Teachers College Press.

Eisen, S. (1995). Redesigning human and global systems: A conceptual framework. Presented at the Academy of Management and Case-Western Reserve University Joint Divisional Conference on the Organization Dimensions of Global Change. Cleveland, OH.

Fullan, M. (2016). The elusive nature of whole system improvement in education. Journal of Educational Change, 17(4), 539–544.

Hannah-Jones, N. (2017, February 21). Have we lost sight of the promise of public schools? The New York Times Magazine. of-public-schools.html? Horsford, S. D. (2011). Vestiges of desegregation: Superintendent perspectives on educational inequality and (dis)integration in the post-civil rights era. Urban Education, 46(1), 34–54. Inayatullah, S. (1998). Causal layered analysis (CLA). Futures, 30(8), 815–825. bed-c157

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Harvard University Press.

Labaree, D. F. (2010). Someone has to fail. Harvard University Press.

May, J. J., & Sanders, E. (2015). Urban education and leadership: A historical perspective. In M. Khalifa, N. W. Arnold, A. F. Osanloo, & C. M. Grant (Eds.), Handbook of Urban Educational Leadership (pp. 4–20). Rowman & Littlefield.

Sardar, Z. (2009). The namesake: Futures; futures studies; futurology; futuristic; foresight - What’s in a name? Futures, 42, 177–184.

Slaughter, R. (1998). Futures studies as an intellectual and applied discipline. American Behavioral Scientist, 42(3), 372- 385.


Zabrina Epps

Zabrina Epps (she/her), Ph.D., is an education futurist, leadership coach, and researcher. She is a Fellow of the Marie Fielder Center for Democracy, Leadership, and Education at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, where she also serves on the Board of Trustees. She has served on her local Board of Education, taught as an adjunct communications instructor, and advised students and faculty. Zabrina has been an APF member since 2019. Contact her at

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