Bring the Revolution Home

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Before I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, I had a respectable job. I was a school teacher.

Unfortunately, I was not a particularly good school teacher. I say that not with any sense of false modesty. It was definitely not something that I had a gift for, and it takes a gift.

In addition to my lack of the gift for teaching, I was put in an impossible situation, the type of situation that so many teachers face every day.

This was before the communications revolution and we suffered a major deficit in information technology--we had only books.

Before my first class on the first day, someone came by and gave me 35 textbooks, which I handed out to everyone in class. After a few minutes of calm, the bell rang and everybody except me raced to squeeze through the door simultaneously. After about half had escaped, I realized that they had taken their books with them. However, I had four more classes arriving and was down to 11 books. These did not survive past lunch.

The rest of the year, I taught with purple-stained fingers as I distributed wrinkled mimeo-papers. I had to make up the lessons because I had not even kept one textbook for myself.

It was no fun for those kids to have no books--to have nothing. And I had to go home at night knowing that they were not getting the education they needed.

Today, the children of the kids I taught are in high school. And, relative to what they need, these kids have even less.

They may have a computer in their class--99 percent of all schools do--but it is likely to be so out of date that, even if the classroom had a phone line--which 90 percent of all classrooms do not--the computer could not be used to send electronic mail. We are all in the information age, but those kids are still not being taught basic literacy.

If Horace Mann came back today and walked into any school in America, he would be very proud of what he'd accomplished until he found out that it was almost the 21st century and nothing had changed. It would be disappointing to Horace to find out what's been left out. We have 40 million people in this country who go to work and play and study every day in rooms that might as well be in the 19th century, and you know this. Those are our teachers and our kids.

To begin to solve this problem, it is absolutely essential that every classroom have some link to send and receive information.

When this happens, the hierarchies are going to flatten. More people who do important jobs are going to find that their jobs are re-tailored and they will be in actual contact with students instead of an administration. We're going to find that budgets are going to be freed up and more money is going to be available for actually reducing the size of classrooms.

Parental involvement will change forever if we get communications technology in classrooms. You will find that you are drawing parents in. Every study says you have to have parental involvement to change education. You will give them the tools to be drawn in, and they will pay the commercial companies for their own access.

How long is the school day? Everybody in education knows that the school day is not long enough. Kids in this country don't go to school enough. They don't spend enough time learning. These are serious issues. But we cannot expect it to be the case in our current school systems that we raise enough money to make the schools stay open longer, or raise enough money to pay teachers more so that they will stay there more. Those are not possibilities in the real world. What is a possibility is that technology will lengthen the time period for learning, that technology will permit homework and work assignments to be sent over networks to homes. That's why they should call it "homework." Send it to homes and let parents and teachers talk about it with kids in the electronic world.

Is this pie in the sky? Half the workers in this country use a computer on a network at the job. Is there some reason why those parents are denied the ability to communicate to their kids' teachers over those same networks? There's no good reason.

How is it working right now? We don't have the tools of connection, but we do have the following going on in this country: In terms of the information age, in terms of communications technology, we have home schooling for the rich. That's what we have as a reality in this country. If you're well off, you've solved this problem already. You've bought a computer for your children, you've put them on a network, and things are going along pretty fast for those particular children. They're teaching themselves on those networks.

Two-thirds of the people in this country who earn more than $100,000 have networked personal computers for their children. We could say that's good enough. We could say, "We'll just settle for the market, that's the market at work." Or we could say, "Who are we kidding? This is not the country that we want our kids to grow up in." If we want anything close to equal opportunity for our children, we have to recognize that we don't want to close down our public schools, we want to change them. We want to make all of this available to all of our children. In addressing these problems, we need to find ways to break through some invisible barriers.

What we have to do is equip all our classrooms with the tools to take advantage of the information revolution and then leave the classroom as a kind of nest, as a self-contained place, as a safe place. Schools will become a community center. I believe this will work very well.

Is there anyone who thinks that the wonderful technology of automobiles means that we should not invent car seats for children? Is there anyone who thinks that we should make sure that these schools are well run, but there shouldn't be any lunches in the schools for kids? Is there anyone who believes that the advances in society in some way should not be tailored to and adapted to the needs of our children? We don't believe this with respect to any advance in our society. We should not believe this with respect to the communications revolution. Bring it home to the kids.

There is a now-familiar African proverb that says, "It takes a whole village to raise a child." In this country, we have subsidies to insure that rural areas have phone service. I'm not against that. However, I do not understand why we should have this goal for Montana but not for our schools. I do not understand why we should be underwriting a second telephone line to the spa at the condominium in Aspen instead of to the teachers in the classrooms. And this is not hard to change. We can do both. We can make sure that affordable telephone service and communications service are made available to everyone in this country geographically, and also to everyone in this country by age, to teachers and to children. We don't need to limit it to the telephone companies. In the world of competition, many companies will be able to offer communications services. Computer companies, cable companies, many kinds of companies. That's not the issue. The issue is our goals. For 60 years, as a country, we've had universal acceptance of the idea of universal service when it is a connection to the network. But we've left out schools and we can change this.

Now, I can't go back more than two decades and make up for the way I handled those 35 books in my first classroom. I can't make it up to those kids that I truly was not prepared for that job. I can't do that, and I can't make any of these things I'm talking about happen on my own. But I would like to ask educators to help me make it up to the children of those children and to all the other children in this world by taking these wonderful inventions and making them available to the next generation.

Vol. 14, Issue 32, Page 52

Published in Print: May 3, 1995, as Bring the Revolution Home
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