Great article. There is still hope yet for our beleaguered schools.
Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of the Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 education, and the William Bennett Munro Professor of political science at Stanford University.
He is an expert on educational policy, U.S. political institutions, and organization theory. His current research projects are concerned with school choice, public bureaucracy, and the presidency.
Excerpt: After a quarter century of “reform,” what the nation got from its political process was an overflow of rhetoric, lots of pointless legislation, and a gigantic bill for untold billions of dollars. The system in 2012 continued to perform poorly. It continued to disappoint. And reformers were largely impotent. The politics of blocking had them beat.
How Technology Will Change Everything
Although few were aware of it, the politics of education was then at a tipping point. In the years that followed, the teachers unions were caught in a slow downward slide. And as their power declined, they were less and less successful at standing in the way of reform. By 2030, the politics of blocking was largely a thing of the past and the nation was on its way to quantum-level improvements.
In the normal course of events, this wouldn’t have happened. Power, after all, is its own protection. For it not only allows the teachers unions to block or weaken major reforms of the education system. It also allows them to prevent reforms—of collective bargaining laws, for example—that would take their power away. So it isn’t taken away. And they stay powerful. And they continue to block. This is the Catch-22 that perpetuates the status quo in normal times.
But because of an accident of history, the times were not normal. And change did come. In 2012, the nation was in the midst of a historic revolution in information technology that was profoundly transforming the fundamentals of human society throughout the world: how people interact and communicate, how they collect information, how they seek knowledge, how they transact business, and much more. This revolution couldn’t help but have profound implications for the way students learn, teachers teach, and schools are organized. And as John Chubb explains, these things came to pass: the explosion in technology brought with it a vast array of dazzling innovations for education, and they were enormously beneficial—and transformative.
Needless to say, the teachers unions fought the advance of technology, just as they had fought all other fundamental changes. And in the beginning, they were fairly successful—for they were hugely powerful, and technology was new and untried. But technology was also different from other reforms.
Indeed, it wasn’t really a reform. Its ideas—and the excitement about them—were everywhere, and they couldn’t ultimately be blocked. They were so forceful and pervasive that they were beyond anyone’s control and were being thrust upon the education system from without. Even in its early years, as a result, technology seeped into the system—slowly and incrementally at first, but inexorably. And then the seepage gave way to bigger, more fundamental change over the decades, generating a wholesale transformation. Here, basically, is how it happened.
Online learning made it possible for education to be customized to each individual child and for underserved constituencies—kids who wanted AP courses, remedial courses, additional credits for graduation, access to specialized coursework, and on and on—to greatly expand their opportunities. So there was a huge demand that only grew with time and quickly expanded to core academic courses in the mainstream curriculum. The implications for social equity, meantime, were profound: for wherever kids were located—from Detroit to Appalachia to Oakland—and whatever their social class or ethnicity, they increasingly had access via technology to the best curricula and educational opportunities the world could make available.
On the supply side, the costs of these dramatic innovations were stunningly lower than those of traditional education because they involved the pervasive substitution of (relatively cheap) technology for (incredibly expensive) labor—which had never been possible before in the history of American education. The entrepreneurial energy was explosive, as new firms flooded into the marketplace, legions of smart people were recruited to work on educational innovations, mavericks within the public sector—entrepreneurial superintendents, future-minded governors—embraced change, and new interest groups (including nonprofits and foundations) lobbied state legislatures to adopt tech-friendly laws promoting online education.
New forms of schooling sprouted up like mushrooms. States set up state-level virtual schools, allowed for a diversity of other providers—some private, some public—and gave all kids the legal right to take as many classes as they needed online. Online charter schools proliferated, attracting millions of students from all across the states—and the nation. Districts began offering their students more and more online options, and they were getting more bang for their bucks by contracting with outside suppliers.
Throughout the country, the modal solution that emerged was the “hybrid” school—many of them charters, some run by districts—in which kids still “went to school” at a physical place, interacted face-to-face with teachers and other students, and continued to participate in art, music, and sports but took roughly 80 percent of their academic classes online. Their teachers no longer had the job of teaching a standardized curriculum to classrooms of thirty kids; instead they had a much more differentiated profession—some teaching online, some overseeing large numbers of kids in computer labs, some tutoring kids one-on-one, some dealing mainly with parents, some in charge of software development, and on and on. The traditional sameness of teaching thus gave way to a much more productive division of labor.
Recommend you read the entire article here.