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The Schools of the Future (page 2)

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

Better, Not Perfect

The contrast we're drawing here is just that: a contrast. We're pointing to changes that are likely to occur relative to the current public school system, and it is by reference to this baseline that we think the schools of the future are likely to be a big improvement. Each of the dimensions we've discussed here is fundamental to a quality education. Each is destined to be transformed by technology. And each should contribute to higher levels of student achievement.

We're not saying that the schools won't have any problems. They surely will, and along all the dimensions we've just discussed. More competition, for example, means that more schools will fail, and more families will experience disruptions and uncertainties as they have to adjust. Distance learning can give rise to accountability and funding issues—and even corruption—because students cannot be physically observed "attending" courses, doing work, and passing tests. The incorporation of homeschoolers into cyberschools means that, because their educations were previously free to the government, new revenues have to be found to pay for them. The list could easily go on.

These problems, and others like them, are normal. They are the sorts of issues that arise in any process of institutional change, and they can readily be addressed and dealt with in reasonable ways. But still, they are problems and may subtract from the productive functioning of the system. More generally, the social world is too complicated, organizations are too difficult to manage, and politics is too intrusive and power-driven for the schools to fly above it all and reach some sort of educational nirvana. They will always fall short in some respects. And there will always be variability in their ranks, with some doing worse than others. This too is all normal.

The great promise of technology for American education, however, is not that it makes the schools perfect or trouble free. Its great promise is that it stands to make them significantly better over time by transforming the underlying fundamentals of the system. It replaces the dead hand of monopoly with the dynamism of diversity and competition. It replaces the sameness of the traditional classroom model with a vast range of innovative learning alternatives. It replaces the "one size fits all" approach to students with powerful new ways of customizing schooling to the needs and interests of each individual. It replaces the uniformity of the teaching profession with differentiated roles and new career paths. It replaces job security and common pay with strong incentives tied to student learning. It replaces the weak information base of today's accountability systems with more detailed and comprehensive data. And more. Technology creates a better system that actively generates and nurtures better schools.

This emphasis on improvement, as opposed to perfection, also applies to the political side of the equation. As technology advances, it will have a profound impact on the politics of education, eroding the power of vested interests and opening the political gates for productive reforms of all types. But this shift in politics needs to be understood in relative terms. We are not saying that the new politics of education is going to function as some sort of idealized democracy in which policy makers seamlessly represent the public interest and always do the "right" thing. The new politics of education must be judged by reference to the baseline from which it departs—namely, the existing structure of education politics, in which vested interests have the power to block. What we are saying is that the new alignment of politics and power will be dramatically better.

Better is not ideal, and still leaves something to be desired. Yes, teachers unions and school districts will decline in power, and their interests will no longer stand in the way of change. But policy makers will still want to get reelected, and will still be responsive to groups that can affect their fates. And technology and its associated reforms can be counted on to generate new vested interests: employees, schools, companies, nonprofits, and constituencies with a stake in the new system. These groups will seek to protect their jobs, incomes, and services by organizing around those interests and exercising power on their behalf in politics—even if it is at the expense of children and quality education. Special-interest politics won't go away. It will just take a different form.

There are two important differences, however, that distinguish the new politics from the old. One is that the new supply-side actors are likely to have heterogeneous interests and functions, to be geographically dispersed, and to be part of a competitive industry—all of which militate against their coalescing into the kind of monolithic power structure that currently defends the traditional system from change. When the best interests of children call for changes in the new system, then, there will surely be political groups that want to stand in the way—but they will be weaker than the vested interests of today, and less able to block. The other difference is that the education system these new special interests will be defending is destined to be more productive and innovative than the current system, and better at promoting student achievement. So on those occasions when vested interests are able to block, they will at least be preserving a "good" status quo—possibly from changes that would make it worse.

In politics, then, as in education, there is no nirvana to look forward to. There are special interests today, and there will be special interests in the future. But the absence of some sort of perfect democracy is a given. What counts is that the new politics of education will be dramatically different from—and better than—the politics of the current system: giving less power to vested interests that for decades have prevented real reform, and creating a process that is far more supportive of progress.

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