Buckle Your Seatbelt Dorothy…

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Glenn Reynolds previews his new book The New School  in the Atlantic.  He foresees a lot less 19th Century Prussian factory style schooling and a great deal more customized education in our future.  Germane to our recent discussion of education accountability, reformatting our factory model of schooling will also require us to update a 1990s model of academic transparency.  As education becomes increasingly customized through old mechanisms like dual enrollment and new ones like MOOCs the notion of holding any single provider accountable with a minimal skills test will grow increasingly out of date. Texas moved to a system of end of course exams-quite reasonably posing the question “if a student takes a Calculus course, shouldn’t we see whether they learned any ‘Calculus’ or not?”

Good question-but thus far this Texas system has endured an Obamacaresque roll out. Time and technology however continue to march on and we should expect an accelerated pace per Reynolds.  Mastery based learning will inevitably require far more precise measurement of what students have learned.

Meanwhile, the Economist is citing an Oxford study’s conclusion that 47 percent of current jobs could be automated in the next two decades as we see a massive substitution of technology for labor across a whole host of industries. The Economist dutifully notes that technology creates far more wealth and jobs in the long run, but notes that the less than long run can prove quite messy.  Ultimately the article recommends that we get on with updating our education system post-haste:

The main way in which governments can help their people through this dislocation is through education systems. One of the reasons for the improvement in workers’ fortunes in the latter part of the Industrial Revolution was because schools were built to educate them—a dramatic change at the time. Now those schools themselves need to be changed, to foster the creativity that humans will need to set them apart from computers. There should be less rote-learning and more critical thinking. Technology itself will help, whether through MOOCs (massive open online courses) or even video games that simulate the skills needed for work.

The definition of “a state education” may also change. Far more money should be spent on pre-schooling, since the cognitive abilities and social skills that children learn in their first few years define much of their future potential. And adults will need continuous education. State education may well involve a year of study to be taken later in life, perhaps in stages.

Add to this chaotic tumult the fact that the country has already begun to enter an era of unprecedented demographic change that will impact all aspects of public policy as the Baby Boom generation moves into retirement.  The working age population will shrink as a percentage of the total, leaving them straining to pay the taxes necessary to maintain the pension, health care and education systems. As an added bonus, even if the Oxford study overestimates  matters, the working age population will face unprecedented professional volatility as technology disrupts the labor market.


If you like your calm, predictable life, you can keep your calm predictable life. Period.

So what to make of all of this?

A certification of knowledge mastery model seems like a realistic way forward to provide continual retraining within a feasible cost structure.  We already give verified third-party end of course exams and MOOC final exams for $89 a pop. Free online coursework continues to expand.  How people socially organize themselves to navigate this tsunami remains to be seen, but it will obviously require a much more flexible, effective and cost-effective system than the one we have today.   As Reynolds notes:

The thing about this is this kind of change tends to happen kind of like the quote about bankruptcy in The Great Gatsby, you know, very slowly and then all at once. I think that we’re coming to the end of the “very slowly” phase and getting to the “all at once.” I think there is going to be fairly dramatic change and a lot of new models. Some of these new models won’t work that well and some of them will, and there will be a period of where are we now? And then it’ll work out.

2 Responses to Buckle Your Seatbelt Dorothy…

  1. Parry says:

    I don’t know. It kind of seems as if nothing that new or exciting is happening in K-12 education right now. The choice movement has been around for decades and is moving at a slow pace (and charter schools/private schools that take vouchers end up looking pretty similar to public schools); standardized testing has been around for decades and has worn everybody out; Clayton Christensen already wrote the “cool” book about education and disruptive technologies; the online learning experience is still pretty boring and only really seems to work when you have pretty independently-motivated students; Common Core has turned into a massive boon for publishing companies and private consultants, and devolved into a “It’s federal over-reach!”/”No, the states really get to make independent choices!” debate.

    But “incremental steps” and “individual schools and educators working hard” just isn’t that sexy a story.

    So is another book by a smart pundit who channels K-12 education through his/her own kids’ personal experiences, based on the premise that “Hey, American parents really ARE dissatisfied with public education, and crazy new exciting stuff is just around the corner, I promise, keep looking, it’s almost here, it’s going to blow you away, we all like different kinds of shampoo and complex educational institutions and services are just like shampoo so we should expect the market to produce crazy new exciting stuff any day now that is personalized to your child’s specific individual needs, here it comes, keep looking!” really that interesting?

    Or am I just in too cynical a mood at the moment?


  2. matthewladner says:

    “We were promised flying cars but settled for 140 characters” eh? It’s all a matter of perspective, especially regarding time. My children are among the millions benefiting from legal and technological education service delivery mechanisms that no one had even imagined when I graduated from high school. If free Stanford, MIT and Harvard courses don’t qualify as crazy, new, exciting stuff then hold on and let’s see what happens next.

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