The following is the first of an occasional series of pieces on educational transformation. This one examines the work of Dr. Drew Epstein, who is a Professor of Social Psychology and Utopian Thinking at North California University, Oyster Bay (NCUOB). He is also the founder and director of the Education for the Future Project, which is a partnership between NCUOB, Esperanza Community College, and the Oyster Bay Unified School District (OBUSD). During the last week of May 2025, we visited with Dr. Epstein to observe his novel approach to the preparation of teachers, as well as the ways in which curriculum and classroom practices have been radically reformed in several demonstration schools of the district.
Before any of our observations, we had a long conversation with Dr. Epstein over a whole range of topics relating to education. He began with the assertion that in a democracy, consideration of fairness and justice requires that everyone have the opportunity to obtain a free education that would enable each student to continue as far as their potential will take them. He then declared that the most fundamental thing each student must learn as part of such an education is how to make the world a better place. All of the curriculum and pedagogy of schools must be organized within this rubric. To make concrete the meaning of those words, he said, “When you look at a typical classroom, what you should see, whether it’s a first grade or a senior high school classroom, is kids working in groups on projects to make the world a better place. The learning occurs when students act on the world to change it, and then reflect on what they have been doing, interrogating their thinking and actions, and thus adding to the knowledge of the world.” He then said that equally fundamental to such a curriculum, is that students learn to be effective as citizens in a democracy.
I interrupted Dr. Epstein and skeptically challenged his last assertion with the declaration that the most important way to make the world a better place is to uncover new scientific truths and then translate these, through technological innovation, into new products and services.
Dr. Epstein responded this way: “Science and technology certainly have a role to play in a project of improving the world, but only a partial role, and much less than has been supposed.” He then demonstrated an impressive knowledge of science and technology by enumerating many of the advances of the past decade, starting with discoveries in material science, gene expression, protein folding, and the mapping of the brain, whence the development of vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as other diseases which have plagued the bottom two billion of the world’s population, new treatments for brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as for many different cancers and heart disease. Then, he went on to discuss the many significant improvements in the generation of solar and wind energy that mean the direst consequences of global climate change are likely to be prevented.
“To be sure,” he said, “we need to graduate a cadre of scientists who will further our understanding of the physical and biological worlds, which will then enable us to further reduce our footprint on the planet while at the same time improving the quality of life. But, as I hope to show you with our experimental schools, there is no inherent conflict between educating students to change the world through democratic action and new scientific discoveries. Rather, we will demonstrate that our approach results in far more student success in learning science. However, I do think the evidence is overwhelming that with the resources and technologies we have today, we have the means to provide everyone on the planet with a gratifying and fulfilling life. Therefore, the main problem is no longer scarcity—of material goods or good ideas—but how we put what we have to the best purposes. That is what future generations of citizens have to decide, and why it is so important that they do so effectively, justly, and fairly.”
I changed the subject from the purpose of schooling to the preparation of teachers and asked him what makes his program different from other teacher education programs.
“First of all, new teachers must be aware that they were not elected and therefore their authority must be won and not rely on coercion. If they do not earn the respect of their students, those students will resist learning. This is especially true for teachers assigned to schools where the majority consists of students of color or whose parents are relatively poor. The teachers in our program enter the classroom knowing that it is incumbent upon them to persuade their students that they need to change the world and, perhaps even more important, that it is possible to do so. In addition to being persuasive they need to be willing to reach out and engage all students; they must be intellectually accessible; they have to be transparent in the reasons why they make decisions in the classroom; and, lastly, they must be negotiable.”
At this point, Dr. Epstein suggested we continue our conversation later, but he now wanted to take me to observe a fifth grade classroom at the Tom Paine Elementary School. We got there late in the morning, a time when students are usually pretty antsy and looking at the clock in anticipation of lunch. However, this was not the case in this classroom. The kids were finishing up group work, which consisted of brainstorming how the Bill of Rights, and particularly the First Amendment, could be applied to problems in their neighborhood, and were preparing to report their ideas to the whole class. One of the groups proposed a rally to protest reduced hours at the local library. They defended this action as applying the right to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances. Another group came up with the idea of creating a website which would have information about the budget of the city parks department to show that their local parks were being underfunded, thus exercising their right to freedom of expression. The student continued like this for thirty minutes, even going into their lunch time, with lots of discussion about which of the first ten amendments was used in each idea and whether the action would be effective.
Over lunch, I continued my conversation with Dr. Epstein. He immediately brought to my attention that the class we had just observed had two teachers for 24 students. He said that the older teacher was a mentor teacher and the younger one, who was, at most, 20 years old, was an assistant teacher enrolled at Esperanza Community College who will eventually transfer to the University to complete his teaching credentials. He pointed out how this illustrates another way his program differs from the traditional pathway: prospective teachers are immediately introduced to the classroom as assistant teachers, the first level on a career ladder with four steps. Assistant teachers learn the skills of teaching by observing the model behavior of a mentor and practicing them under their supervisor’s guidance. Also, as contrasted with a traditional program, the apprentice teacher is paid, albeit at a modest rate, for his/her time in the classroom.
I asked Dr. Epstein what kind of courses prospective teachers take at the community college and university, in particular, if there were methods courses, for example, on how to teach phonics to first graders (after asking if, indeed, first graders at Tom Paine learn to sound out words). “Yes,” he told me, “students do learn phonics, but there are no practicum and methods courses. It would take years to apply the theories obtained in methods courses to the actual classroom. Moreover, they do not deal in reality. Students are different than the way they are portrayed in methods courses.”
He went on to say, “Teacher education is organized both for obtaining knowledge and as an apprenticeship. To learn the skills of teaching at any grade, the candidate has to go into the classroom and, under the supervision of a mentor, begin teaching. This is why a career ladder is so important to democratic education. At the beginning, they can do low level activities, and, as they develop more knowledge and skill, they take on more complex responsibilities and go up that career ladder. In most cases, it will take five to eight years to climb the first three rungs of the teaching career ladder, and become a full classroom teacher. Only a fraction of teachers reach the top rung, that of a mentor teacher.”
I asked Dr. Epstein if he is certain this works. He cited a number of New Careers Teacher Preparation Programs from the 1960s and 1970s that, at least anecdotally, were considered successful, but were not rigorously evaluated; a deficiency that he thinks will be remedied with the current project.
I returned to the question of courses the prospective teachers have to take. He mentioned quite a number that are all absent from traditional programs. The first course he described was on democracy. He said that prospective teachers must understand that democracy can never be fully realized, but only approached “asymptotically.” In particular, we are closer to being a democracy today than we were a decade ago when we seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, at risk of succumbing to what Bert Gross called “Friendly Fascism,” but we are still far away from a democracy.
“Our course, Democracy for the Classroom, focuses on eight fundamental principles of a democracy and how they apply to teaching. These are: a vision of a sustainable and desirable world; authority based on fairness, access, transparency, persuasion, and negotiability; rights, such as freedom of expression, privacy, and due process; inclusion, so that every one is invited to belong; knowledge of how the world works scientifically, politically, and economically; participation; an environment which encourages all to reach their full potential; and, equality.”
To give me a sense of how this translated to teaching. Dr. Epstein took me to observe a high school class on urban planning. The students were divided into functional groups, such as transportation, food systems, recreation, art and culture, and energy. We wandered around to observe the work of the groups more closely. One thing that struck me was the willingness of the students to challenge current ideas about knowledge. For the most part, they observed protocols that were prominently displayed on posters around the room. These included: “Challenge ideas, not people,” “You must have reasons to challenge knowledge or ideas,” and “Rely on logic and evidence, not beliefs.” Despite this, we would occasionally hear a student say, “I believe…,” which would elicit a chorus of, “Tell us what you think and why, not what you believe.”
Later, when discussing the class, I suggested that getting students to operate according to these principles has to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, since their parents, and most of the adults they encounter, must violate them every day. I pointed out that there was extensive research by the psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and others that many, if not most, people struggle with making decisions on the basis of evidence and logic, but rather commonly use biases and heuristics. Dr. Epstein’s response was that this is why we have to start early, as early as kindergarten and inculcate these ways of reasoning.
I then asked Dr. Epstein how he is able to do this when the students’ parents are not used to making decisions on the basis of education and logic. It seemed to me that the teachers and students would be challenging the parents’ knowledge and ideas about how the world works. Dr. Epstein responded that there is the occasional parent who transfers his/her kids out of the demonstration schools, but more often the kids, with their teachers’ encouragement, talk to their parents about what they are doing at school and, as far out as it may seem, the kids are sometimes teaching their parents.
We returned to the required courses in the teacher preparation program. He said the second fundamental course is “Utopian Visions.” In this course students survey the history of utopias, read numerous utopian works, including those by Thomas More, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, H.G. Wells, Ursula Le Guin and others. The students in the course, working in groups, are encouraged to imagine a world as good as it can be, and to share that vision with others. The only constraints on their visions are that they should be environmentally, economically, and politically sustainable; they must be desirable in that most people would find it [that world] gratifying; and, they must be based on current knowledge and technology.
He also briefly described several other courses that he argued are essential for teachers in order to make sense of the world for their students. These are: Learning Theory (informed by brain research); The Social Psychology of the Classroom; Confronting Racism and Other Bigotries; Elementary Economics with an emphasis on how different schools of the profession affect schools and opportunity; and Callenging Issues (War, Poverty, Social Injustice, and Environmental Degradation).
Finally, he described a course on “Science as Method and Practice,” which involves both theory and work in the classroom. As he described the theoretical part, using case studies, the prospective teachers learn how science is always based on challenging current knowledge, how knowledge is tested and refined. Then, with this theory and the modeling behavior of their mentor teacher, they practice this in the classroom, guiding students in making hypotheses and then designing ways to test them and then, if necessary, to refine them as a consequence of what was learned.
To see the fruits of this, I was able to observe a science class at the elementary school and it was a wonder. All the students were actively participating and incredibly animated. When I got there, the students were recording data about the growth of plants according to how much sun they were exposed to, the frequency of watering, and how much fertilizer they were given. They plotted their data on graphs and made conjectures about which factors had the greatest response, and discussed the design of experiments to test their hypotheses. Dr. Epstein suggested that it was classes like this that would ultimately demonstrate the efficacy of his approach, even to the graduating of a new generation of scientists. He asserted that, as contrasted with traditional teaching where all but a handful of students never learn what it really means to do science, this approach has the potential to keep all students excited and engaged. And, since we do not really know who has the aptitude to excel at science, we are likely to encourage students with high potential who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do science. We didn’t have time to observe a math class, but Dr. Epstein said the principles are the same.
All in all, the visit was fascinating. Dr. Epstein has some very novel ideas and approaches to teaching and teaching teachers. However, even as he preaches, he remains skeptical of his own theories and ideas and is willing to put them to the test. An outside evaluation team periodically visits the demonstration schools, tests the students and compares them to similar populations of students at more traditional schools. The data will not be available for several years in order to give the program the opportunity to develop and shake out its bugs. We will just have to be patient and await judgment of Dr. Epstein and the Education for the Future Project.