Education Opinion

We’ve Gone Mad; The U.K. Hasn’t

By Justin Reich — October 30, 2012 3 min read
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Over the past five years, the timbre of conversations about education and schooling has gone from the usual level of baseline panic that has persisted since A Nation at Risk in 1983 to a bug-eyed belief that something has to change. NOW.

This week’s sign of the impending edupocalypse comes from Harvard Graduate of Education Professor Richard Elmore, who studied and taught policy for many years before spending the last decade working to professionalize teaching. (He’s well known for his work with Instructional Rounds in the last few years.)

Recently at the Aspen Institute, he declared, “I no longer believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore. I view my work as palliative care for a dying institution.” Elmore argues that schools are failing students (“the modal classroom in this country is designed, point for point, to be the exact opposite about what we are learning about how humans develop”), and the ways that public schools are accommodating new digital innovations are “totally dysfunctional.” Schooling and learning will be disassociated, and learning will happen in online networks rather than in anything called schools. This will have dreadful effects on access and equity. The clip is worth watching in its entirety, to view a leading authority on education policy and practice declare the terminal illness of public schooling.

I see Elmore’s pronouncement in a broader context of increasingly frenetic activity and belief in the education sector. Venture capitalists are pouring hundreds of millions into U.S. education technology startups designed to support, more or less, our current model of schooling. School districts are buying approximately 1 zillion iPads, typically with virtually no plan for teacher training or the redesign of curriculum or lessons to take advantage of new devices. The University of Virginia fired and rehired its president in a spat over the pace of adoption for online learning. Free market education reformers are making major progress in using the advent of online learning as a vehicle to advance their decades-long push for voucherization, with the hopes of letting kids not just buy a whole school but to buy individual courses.

It is a fervent moment for the imagination. Maybe everything is broken. Maybe technology will save us. Maybe all the schools will disappear. Maybe they’ll just become cubicle farms of online learning, patrolled by security guards, with students wearing bright headphones plugged into their algorithmically-optimized lessons. But there is a growing certainty among the edu-punditry that one of the most conservative institutions in U.S. society is about to experience some combination of profound, lasting change and/or death.

It was all too much, so I left and went to the U.K.

This Monday, I gave a talk at the Oxford Internet Institute (sister of the Berkman Center) trying to capture some of the zeitgeist of the moment in the U.S. For a title, I came up with Personalization, Backpacks of Cash, and Rock Star Teachers: The Intersection of U.S. Education Policy, Technology, and Media Hype.

Personalization, Backpacks Full of Cash, and Rock Star Teachers: The Intersection of U.S. Education Policy, Technology and Media Hype from EdTechTeacher.org

I talked about our amped up conversations on the left side of the Atlantic, and I got bemused looks and blank stares from my British colleagues. Have you all signed up for MOOCs, and do you recognize the impending destruction of physical universities? No. Have you all bought a billion pounds worth of iPads for your schools? No. Do you realize that your system of public schooling is headed for collapse? Not really. More tea?

The problem with ideas on the fringe is its hard to tell madness from genius. It may be that our fervor in the United States presages a revolution in schooling and learning. We also may be experiencing a bit of an education technology bubble, perhaps with a policy bubble to go along with our venture funding bubble. To add one additional data point to your prediction models: the folks in Oxford don’t seem quite as worked up as we are.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.