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The Schools of the Future

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Mar 17, 2011

As the transformation does come, or at least as the pace of change picks up and begins to take distinctive form, it is not destined to carry the American education system off into the cybersphere and leave regular schooling behind. The transformation is partly about incorporating new technologies into the way American children are educated. But it is mainly about liberating the schools from the power of special interest groups, elevating the interests of children to first priority, and generating a political process that actively embraces productive reforms of all types.

What will the schools of the future look like? No one can know the details, of course, as that is the beauty of innovation: it opens up possibilities that can't be anticipated. In general, however, there is good reason to think that certain basic properties will tend to emerge—if slowly at first—in the coming decades. The system will not be perfect. But it will be significantly different than it is now, and in our judgment significantly better. Here is what we expect, in broad outline:

Most schools will be hybrids of the traditional and the hightech. There will be many schools in which teaching and learning occur at a distance and follow the pure cyber model—some educating the whole student as cyber charters do now, some enrolling part of the student as state-level virtual schools now do, and some doing both. Most schools, however, will be hybrids: bringing students together (at least for part of the day) for face-to-face interactions with one another and their teachers, yet also very much organized around computers, software-driven course work, Internet-based research, and distance learning for many courses that are specialized or costly for individual schools to provide on their own. The typical American child will not be attending school by sitting at home on a computer. He or she will be going to school, just as now—but the school will be very different, and many of the courses will not be taught by on-site teachers.

Schools will be more customized to students. Technology will do away with the standardized, "one size fits all" approach to education that has turned kids off and made it difficult for them to learn. In the future, students will be able to move through curricula at their own pace; have greater flexibility in choosing when and where to do their work; be better able to investigate subjects that interest them, including specialized courses that in the past would have been entirely unavailable to them; be able to conduct in-depth research using far-flung data sources; be able to "interact" with students and teachers all over the country and the world; and on and on. All of this will give students more control over their own education, make the education process much more interesting to them—and be highly motivating.

Schools will provide more effective instruction. Partly this will happen because schools will have more effective teachers. But technology itself will enhance instruction, promoting learning in ways that teachers in traditional classrooms never could. Sophisticated computer graphics, simulations, and video will communicate difficult concepts with extraordinary clarity. Software will guide students through challenging material and provide lots of opportunity for practice and feedback along the way. Formative assessments will pinpoint student weaknesses, which will then be remediated with online or teacher-led lessons crafted especially for those particular problems. The best teachers in the world—literally—will be available to any classroom at any time or place to work their magic.

Schools will be more beneficial to teachers. Teachers will have a greater variety of schools to choose from, and a greater variety of roles they might play. The typical teacher will no longer be standing in front of a classroom of twenty-five children. Indeed, there will no longer be a typical teacher: specialization and differentiation will become the norm, and the bland uniformity of the past will die a well-deserved death. With data on performance readily available, teacher pay will often depend (in part) in how much students learn, and good teachers will be rewarded for their skill and success. They will also be paid more because, as technology is substituted for labor, teachers will become more productive and less numerous, and more money can be devoted to their salaries. Mediocre teachers, meanwhile, will become much easier to identify and remove. Overall, working conditions for teachers will be more oriented by merit and achievement, more challenging and demanding, and more attractive to people with talent and ambition.

Schools will be less costly. Society can decide to spend whatever it wants on the public schools, so "costs" must be understood with that in mind. But it's all relative. Today's schools are highly labor intensive, and labor is extraordinarily costly. The schools of the future, even if most are hybrids that involve strong face-to-face components, will rely much more heavily on computers and Internet-related technologies, and will operate at a much higher capital-labor ratio than the current schools do, with fewer teachers per student (on average). Technology is relatively cheap—and it is getting cheaper all the time, as innovation and market competition drive prices down and quality up. Labor, on the other hand, is getting much more expensive. Health care benefits alone are threatening to bankrupt many school districts as things now stand. The schools of the future, then, should be far better able to provide a quality education at a cost that society can afford.

Schools will be more autonomous. The advance of technology makes it increasingly possible for new schools to rise up and survive on their own as autonomous entities, for it allows schools to attract students and hire teachers without respect to geographic boundaries and without the expense of new buildings, and it allows them to expand at relatively low marginal cost. Because of its political effects, also, there will be many more charter schools of all types, whether high-tech or not, and more voucher programs that pay for disadvantaged children to attend private schools. On the whole, then, the schools that are not autonomous—the regular public schools—will constitute a smaller portion of the population of schools receiving government funding. The schools of the future will increasingly be responsible for their own fates: living or dying on the basis of how well they do their jobs, and not sheltered or controlled by a larger bureaucracy.

Schools will be more competitive and offer more choice. Technology spells the end of monopoly in American education. The proliferation of autonomous schools, combined with their differentiation as they seek out niches and constituencies to attract enrollment, will give students and parents a much broader array of alternatives to choose from: some cyber, some hybrid, some neither, with many variations on each theme. There will be much greater variety in the universe of schools and much greater choice. And with greater choice comes greater competition—and much stronger incentives to perform: because all schools, including the regular public schools, are going to be well aware that their enrollments and revenues are not guaranteed, and that they must do their jobs well to continue attracting support.

Schools will be more accountable. Greater competition and choice lead to greater accountability on their own, because they allow students and parents to vote with their feet when school performance is inadequate—thus holding schools accountable from below. But top-down accountability will also be more effective than it currently is: in part because technology leads to the collection, analysis, and dissemination of much better information on each school's performance, and in part because the political effects of technology—which undermine union power—allow policy makers to design accountability systems that are more effective and have fewer special-interest loopholes. Accountability is therefore boosted from both ends, from the bottom up and from the top down, and the combination is likely to prove quite powerful in giving schools strong incentives to promote student learning.

Schools will do a better job of serving needy constituencies. Cyberschools provide a vehicle for incorporating the nation's million-plus homeschoolers into the education system, providing them with high-quality curricula and an organized schooling experience. Dropouts can readily take the classes they need for graduation, aided by the choice and flexibility that cybers provide them—and the graduation rate should climb. Rural kids can escape the limitations (usually due to small size and budget) of their local districts, use cybers to enroll in a full range of specialized and advanced courses, and take advantage of what the larger education system has to offer. Gifted kids, so often held back by the "least common denominator" norm in regular schools, can zoom ahead at their own speed. All of these constituencies are getting the short end of the stick under the current system. Under the new system, they will be better served—and better able to realize their potential.

Schools will do a better job of promoting social equity. Poor and minority children are the neediest of constituencies, and we deal with them separately for that reason. All too often, they are stuck in the nation's worst public schools—and the cyber revolution offers them the power to break out. Through cyberschools, they can escape their local conditions (at least in this respect) and take advantage of the same broad range of course work and educational options available to kids anywhere in the country. And as regular charter schools and voucher programs expand, they will have additional options to choose from on that dimension as well. The key is that they will have far greater choice—and they will not be trapped. Their traditional brick-and-mortar choices will be better, too. Disadvantaged kids tend to be served by the most rule-bound of the public schools systems. As the rules change to inject merit- and performance-based incentives into the public systems, schools serving poor and minority children have the most to gain.

Schools will continue to socialize students. No one is required to put their children into schools that conduct all their work at a distance and offer little or no face-to-face interaction. Parents of younger children, especially, will presumably not want that. They will tend to prefer more socially interactive settings for their kids, where children and teachers can be in the same physical place, and where values, norms, and social skills can be promoted in a directed, hands-on way. But many may feel that these social dimensions are less pressing or important—at least during school time—for older students. And in any event, even a curriculum entirely based on distance learning can involve a great deal of social interaction, sometimes much more than a traditional schooling experience would entail—it's just a different type of social interaction, one that takes place through words rather than face-to-face, but can still be extraordinarily meaningful and important to those involved. It can take place, moreover, among students who are thousands of miles apart, from different cultures, of different races and ethnicities, and may well allow for a quality of interaction that is richer and more diverse than kids often get on today's schoolyards. The notion that computers and distance learning somehow undermine the socialization of students is out of date, and based on an overly narrow notion of what socialization is. There will be plenty of social interaction going on in the schools of the future, even in pure cyberschools. It will just take a different form than what we are used to today.

Schools will be better at doing what works. As schools become more disciplined by competition and accountability, have greater incentives to promote achievement, are more autonomous, and are freer to recruit, retain, and compensate based on merit, they will put into place those things that have been proven to succeed. Schools will improve their talent: teacher quality will rise as better teachers are attracted to the profession, low performers are weeded out, and compensation is increased. Schools will develop stronger cultures, because they will be made up of professionals who have earned the right to be in the school and who choose to work together for a common purpose. Curricula will become richer and more demanding as more effective teachers and differentiated technology make rigor easier to deliver. Schools will also be far better able to hold their own staff accountable, as technology provides ready and reliable gauges of student progress and teachers can be held responsible for helping every child achieve. In the world to come, schools will succeed because they will be able—finally—to do the things that work.

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