In my Spring 2011 course at Washington University titled “The Future of Schools,” we’ve been reading a wide range of studies about the broad shift in the world’s economies to more creative, knowledge based activities. We’ve been reading about the potential impact of technology, particularly the Internet, on schools of the future. The mystery facing all research-based attempts to reform schools is: Why do schools stay the same, year after year and decade after decade, even as new research accumulates? The practice of medicine advances every year, when basic research findings are translated into clinical practice. But the same doesn’t seem to happen with education.
I suspect that everything will stay the same, until suddenly, one day, everything will change. I think it’s impossible to predict exactly when the change will occur. Here’s one new development, in the United States. In the U.S., every one of the 50 states has legal responsibility for public schooling; there is no federal government control of public schools, under the U.S. Constitution. So unlike almost every other country, there is no national curriculum, no national test, and it is very difficult to compare students from one state to the next. In recent years, over 40 states have independently agreed to use the same “common core” standards, which are currently under development. At the same time, the consortium of states is developing a new set of standardized tests, with $330 million of funding from the U.S. Department of Education. And in the New York Times of April 28, 2011, I learned that:
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, and the foundation associated with Pearson, the giant textbook and school technology company, announced a partnership on Wednesday to create online reading and math courses aligned with the new academic standards…The 24 new courses will use video, interactive software, games, social media and other digital materials to present math lessons for kindergarten through 10th grade and English lessons for kindergarten through 12th grade.
This is fascinating. If the pieces all fall into place, it’s not hard to envision an increasing number of students choosing to opt out of school altogether, and sign up for these online courses. Pearson is planning to market the new courses directly to schools and districts, as a replacement for the textbooks they are currently buying; but I’m sure some parents will wonder, why can’t I just do this at home?
As Richard Halverson and Allan Collins argue in their recent book Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, technological developments like these will continue whether or not schools adapt accordingly. And if they don’t figure out how to respond and adapt to new developments like this, they may become increasingly irrelevant. This would not be good for the future of public schools, and it should concern all of us.
*Sam Dillon, “Foundations Join to Offer Online Courses for Schools.” New York Times, April 28, 2011, p. A18.