Although the title may seem a bit melodramatic, maybe not. As we speak, battle lines continue to be drawn on several educational fronts that affect issues for all Americans. Important ones. They run the gamut from taxation, jobs, politics, and the education of our children. Regardless of where you live, what you do, or who you are, it is likely that some or all of these issues are important to you. Let’s explore…
In the 1950′s and 60′s, a relatively short time ago, the US educational system was the envy of the world. It guaranteed, by law, that every child had a right to an “appropriate education. That was, for the most part, interpreted to mean a “quality” education. In fact, American students pretty much out performed every developed country in the world in standardized testing. For a long time that worked pretty well because labor (by far the most significant expense) was completely under control as teachers were paid a pittance. This, in and of itself, made quality education affordable. It should also be noted that as a commercial society, it was generally accepted that not all students were on an academic track and that many would get a basic education and then proceed to learn a trade (carpentry, plumbing, safe cracking…) that would be their career. All in all, it served our society reasonably well. It did, however, leave some groups unsatisfied. Teachers formed unions to fight for a livable wage. Parents fought for more and more resources for their children. Taxpayers fought for control over their tax contributions.
As time has passed, the labor movement in public education has changed the dynamic of the economics, the parents have changed the goals of the students, and no one is happy with the status quo except those who found a way thrive in it. That would be, mostly, labor. In the last 10 years alone, a period of significant economic struggle for most Americans, teachers in 39 of the 50 states have had salary increases of at least 25%.
This in an era when legislation in many states has clamped down on the taxation powers of school boards in the form of referendum laws that require school districts to get increases in funding by popular vote, something that generally doesn’t happen. As such, the local control of educational issues that has historically been in the hands of the local community, is being challenged. National law (No Child Left Behind, for example) and unfunded mandates from states Education Departments have put additional pressure on school districts to perform, without additional funding. Additionally, parents and parent groups have pressured school districts to provide more services and more class offerings. Traditionally these districts have had no choice but to turn to their communities and ask (demand) higher funding, usually in the form of property taxes.
So, let’s review. Cost of living goes up, teachers demand more pay. Parents want more from schools, costs go up. School costs go up, taxes go up. Taxes go up, taxpayers pressure their elected leaders to control costs. All this turmoil around the education of our kids, which does seem like it should be a high priority in any developed society.
OK. Sorry for the history lesson. Lets deal with something we actually understand. Technology. In a relatively short period of time (10 years or so) we have witnessed the injection of technology into the classroom. In some cases, the classroom has been removed by technology and still, education has marched on. Pressured by economics that can’t be solved, some academic leaders have led the charge to create Cyber Schools, a new form of educational delivery, which is made economically viable based on several important factors:
- Emerging Technology - A significantly proliferation in Internet availability and affordability has fueled the expansion of Cyber Schools.
- Decreasing Cost of Technology - Coupled with less expensive bandwidth, computer, servers, routers, switches and all the other toys that make technology work are also more affordable.
- Choice - Parents and students, increasingly, are looking for custom educations, curriculum to supplement home school, or public education that can support their child who, for whatever reason, can’t or doesn’t want, to attend a traditional brick and mortar public school.
- Economics - As states struggle to fund education, the efficiencies created by online and distance education models has allowed schools to do more with less as the operational costs of these schools are far less than traditional schools. As Cyber schools are typically staffed by non-union teachers, costs are further lowered in relation to public schools.
Resistance to these non-traditional delivery forms come, mostly, from those invested in the status quo. Teachers, Administrators, and School Boards with no understanding of the online schools capabilities point at a perceived lack of student socialization as a sure fire failure of Cyber School and attack this weakness as a reason to embrace the traditional system.
Although the fear of change is understandable, the solutions are more complex than they seem. Its not just a matter of buying some servers and re-training teachers. Our entire sense of community is rooted in large part to our schools. If we tear away those ethnocentric boundaries, how will we choose a football team to root for???
There are other problems. While our kids performed at a world-class level in the past, American students now rank 27th among developed countries in standardized testing. So our beloved model has brought us poor results at expensive prices.
There is something else to consider. While public education performance has slipped and prices have increased, customers (students) have embraced technology and made the technology a part of their lives. Kids all over the world plug into their world as they climb out of bed. They are then required to un-plug as they enter the school day all the while waiting for the day to end so they can re-attach to their world. The cultural acceptance of technology in the world of our students is rock solid. Our students will adapt very quickly to having education delivered through technological means.
My conclusions? Not to state the obvious, but neither model is perfect. Traditional brick and mortar has an economic problem it cant solve. Technology based models lack a day-in, day-out, face-to-face relationship with their students. It would seem pretty clear that theres a middle ground, hybrid opportunity to leverage. We just need to, somehow, find our way around the all the territorial / political issue and allow solutions to reveal themselves. Certainly experimenting with the model is not new in education. Ask anyone who grew up without phonics because the “whole word theory” was in vogue. The classroom has always been a bit of a lab. We do, however, have enough statistical data to accept that students can excel academically in cyber-based programs. We just need to find the courage to re-train, re-deploy and move forward.
I know, pretty long. Sorry, but I don’t think there’s a more important issue for us, as a society, to solve.
Uh-oh… There’s that melodrama again…