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Jay on the Web: Will Technology Save Our Kids?

Looking ahead, education policy soothsayers Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb see our electronic miracle devices finally doing what we have long been promised — making our children better educated. I would shrug their new book off as more wishful thinking, except Moe and Chubb are smart guys with a good track record. Their 1990 book, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools,” was a helpful guide for many of us trying to understand the rise of the school choice movement. They got some things wrong, but there was enough sensible material there to convince me to look into their new crystal ball.

The title of their latest book is “Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education.” I hesitate to spoil the ending, but they made it so easy to summarize in one sentence I could not resist. Because of the rise of technology, Moe and Chubb say, our future schools will be more customized to students, more effective, more beneficial to teachers, less costly, more autonomous, more competitive, more accountable, better at serving needy constituencies, better at promoting social equity and better at doing what works. Whew. Sounds good. But are they sure? No.

They also don’t say how long it is going to take to get there and are very clear that trolls lurk under the bridge to tomorrow. “All reform proposals need to make their way through the political process if they are to be authorized and put into effect, yet the political process is a minefield of power and self-interest,” they say. That sounds more like Moe, the Stanford political scientist, than Chubb, the chief development officer of the school reform company EdisonLearning. Moe provided much of the intellectual firepower behind the movement to authorize tax-supported vouchers to allow children to attend private schools. Politics, including unsuccessful statewide ballot measures, diminished the chances of a big future for vouchers, but Moe and Chubb see online schools offering an even bigger opportunity to shock the regular public school system with competition.

What I like best about the book is its acceptance of the unpredictability of educational innovation in the United States. Something big is going to happen, the authors say, but we would be fools to tell you which of these many new tools, such as cyber charters, are going to be the ones to turn the teaching enterprise in a new direction. There is, they say, “something unique about technology that sets it apart from the other sources of education reform. It is a social force that is essentially out of control. No one is in charge of it. No one can really stop it. Its mainsprings are in the economy and society generally, not in government per se; and its innovations are being generated at such a fast pace, with such promising applications and with such widespread appeal that — even in the public sector — there are countless openings for change.

I learned a great deal here about virtual schools — organized around web sites — that I did not know. As of last year, 26 states had laws allowing such enterprises, with Texas scheduled to join that number this year. The typical virtual school is a high school, with an array of courses not available to students in regular schools, like Advanced Placement courses. Chubb is an expert on this. His company is setting up virtual schools. They attract an interesting mix of customers, from isolated rural kids to child actors who work during the day to budding geniuses who have taken everything their neighborhood school offers to pregnant girls to, well, as they say, it is hard to predict just who is going to be attracted to this innovation.

They failed to answer my question — how effective are these schools now — because they are too new and often not tied yet to trustworthy testing systems. But the book convinced me that we need to know more about what is going on here than we do. Much of it is below the radar, spread about the homeschooling community, rejected or ignored by regular school officials as a passing fad.

Moe and Chubb are good teachers. They do a fine job giving us the quick intro course. I hope they are planning another book in about five years, when this trend may get interesting.

By Washington Post Editors  | July 17, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  
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For more on the effectiveness of one species of the online school, check out the Economist's report from yesterday:

Posted by: cmtregis | July 17, 2009 8:08 AM | Report abuse

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