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The Benefits of Technology (page 2)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Nov 6, 2010

Political Resistance

The answer might seem obvious. Given the stagnation in performance that has long plagued American education, and given the long-standing inability of reform efforts to bring real improvement, the revolution in information technology clearly opens up exciting opportunities for revitalizing the education system and making it much more productive. Surely these opportunities will be greeted with open arms and put to creative use in promoting innovation, driving change, and doing what is best for kids. Surely technology will triumph—and transform the education system.

But this line of argument is too easy. It focuses on the force for change—the benefits of technology—and there is much more to the story than that. Consider the plight of the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WVA), a charter school operated by Wisconsin's Northern Ozaukee school district in cooperation with K12 Inc., a for-profit company. This school is one of the pioneers in bringing distance-learning technologies to public education: providing a rigorous, customized curriculum to students who "attend" from locations all over the state of Wisconsin, and whose needs were not being met by their own districts. Exciting, right? But also threatening to the districts that are losing students and resources to this innovative school. And threatening to the state teachers union, which, among other things, wants to protect the jobs of teachers in those districts, and does not like WVA's ability (facilitated by technology) to operate at lower teacher-student ratios. So the teachers union went to court to have WVA—and implicitly, all schools like it in the state of Wisconsin—put out of business, claiming that the school's mode of operation violates existing state education laws (which were written without distance learning in mind).

We'll continue this story in a later chapter. But what it represents is something quite fundamental. The force of technology is up against a counterforce: resistance by groups that do not want the traditional education system to change. Precisely because technology promises to transform the core components of schooling, it is inevitably disruptive to the jobs, routines, and resources of the people whose livelihoods derive from the existing system—and these people are represented by organizations that are extraordinarily powerful in politics. They are trying to use that power to prevent technology from transforming American education. And they will continue to do so in the future.

This mobilization of power to block change is not unique to technology. It is, in microcosm, the saga of American education reform. America has been dissatisfied with the performance of its public schools for decades now, and has persistently tried to reform and improve them, but with disappointing results. A prime reason for all the disappointment is that reforms that really promise to change things are also threatening to groups with material stakes in the existing system—and throughout the reformist era, they have used their political power to prevent major change and preserve the status quo. This being so, the American education system faces much more than a performance problem. It also faces a political problem that, in the grander scheme of things, is more fundamental than the performance problem itself—because it prevents the performance problem from being seriously addressed and resolved.

The political problem that hamstrings American education is in fact a common problem throughout American government, and deeply rooted in the nature of things. For there are vested interests—groups with a material stake in the status quo—in every area of public policy, and they tend to be organized, powerful, and quite successful at using the political process to prevent reform within their own policy domains. Why is it so difficult for the United States to move toward a more rational and comprehensive health care system, and thus to resolve what most experts regard as a very serious performance problem? A prime reason is that insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and other businesses with a vested interest in the current health care system are threatened by any major overhaul, and they use their considerable power in the political process to block. Why does the nation continue to subsidize cotton, soybeans, and other crops—including tobacco, one of the most harmful substances in American society—when most experts agree that the subsidies make no good sense and the system should be radically changed? Here too, the main reason this problem can't be resolved is that farmers, tobacco companies, and related businesses with a vested interest in the system are politically powerful, and they use their power to block any shift to a new policy.

To say that the deck is stacked against change in public education, then, is simply to recognize a basic reality of government and politics. A stacked deck is normal. And so is the expectation that, as technology generates new ideas and possibilities with great promise for American education, political power will be wielded to put a lid on what technology can really do—and to ensure that the revolution in information technology does not transform the traditional education system.

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