Two decades after writing Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, Terry Moe and John Chubb have done it again. With Liberating Learning they’ve written a a compelling account of what is blocking significant improvement in public education and provided strategies for overcoming those obstacles.
The main obstacle has remained the same across the two books: teachers unions. Organized special interests in education as in other sectors of public policy shape the policies that are made. In the case of education the special interests are so large, well-organized, and well-funded that their influence has distorted policy significantly to the benefit of the adults working in schools and against the interests of students and their families.
In their earlier book the solution to union dominance was choice and competition. Interest groups can control policy but they can’t easily control markets. But in the new book Moe and Chubb (they flipped the order of the names) acknowledge that unions have been generally successful at using politics to block the creation of effective markets. Something has to loosen the union stranglehold to allow the markets to develop and prosper.
In Liberating Learning they’ve found what they think will break that logjam: technology. The increasing use of technology in education will transform the operation of schools and the role of teachers in education. In general, it will reduce the need for teachers by replacing (at least to some extent) labor with capital. It will generate tons of data, improving the transparency of schools to the public and policymakers. And it will decentralize the education workplace, making it harder for unions to organize and control the workforce.
There are clear echoes of Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive technologies in this new book. But unlike Christensen, Moe and Chubb focus on the politics of public organizations rather than technology per se. In fact, if you are looking for detailed descriptions of how technology should be used in education or hard proof of its effectiveness, you won’t find it in Moe and Chubb’s new book. They are not trying to prove that these technologies are educationally effective or describe best practices, although it is clear that they have some ideas on these topics. They are trying to describe the political logic of the current stagnation in education and how it might be altered.
The clear writing and tight argument will make Liberating Learning a pleasure to read for education reformers. We might still wonder whether unions will be able to use politics to block the transformative effect of technology, but the book is sure to provoke a lot of productive discussion and thinking.
(edited for typos)