Tech brands might have to kill public education to save it

Published on August 7, 2019

We tend to speak in extremes these days.

When online shopping replaces storefront shopping, we call it a Retail Apocalypse. In reality, consumers are simply making choices about how they want to buy. Technology didn’t kill retail shopping. It made it better. You will still have storefront shopping, particularly for things like clothing and furniture. But for other things that don’t require personal choice, it makes more sense to have them delivered to your home.

Most industries have experienced similar improvements. Take transportation, for example. When was the last time you used a taxi? Why would you, when Uber and Lyft can be at your location in three minutes or less? We can morn the loss of taxi drivers, or revel in the fact that personal transportation became cheaper and more convenient.

Technology tends to make things more efficient. I come from the newspaper industry. A wave of technology in the 1970s and early 80s put a lot of people out of work, as newspapers changed from movable type to typesetting technology. Then, as you know, a few years later the Internet made newspapers practically obsolete. It makes no sense to cut down a tree, mill the pulp into paper, put the paper through a printing press and hire drivers to bring the paper to thousands of individual homes when you can just look at your phone and get all the news you need.

A newspaper apocalypse, or just a better way to get the news?

We still need to buy stuff from retailers. Now it’s easier. We still need transportation. Now, it’s more convenient. We still need news. Now, it’s delivered faster.

But what about education?

Growing Pains

Thanks to technology, families can now choose how they want their education delivered. Will this be the end of education? Or simply a more convenient and efficient way to acquire knowledge? According to education insiders, change is inevitable. And the education industry is having growing pains because of it. At least 25 percent of school-aged children are no longer involved in traditional public education, thanks in part to the opportunities that technology has afforded. Yet many school and union leaders aren’t exactly hip to this trend, predicting the end of public education as we know it.

Perhaps they are right. And maybe public education as we know it should die. If it were left entirely up to the free market, that is probably what would happen. But it’s not. And it won’t.

For a realistic look at what is going on in education, I asked LeiLani Cauthen. She’s CEO of the Learning Counsel and is one of the people leading the digital transition in education from the inside. Cauthen says, “Education’s digital transition seems to be taking its toll on everyone involved. Many are asking if it is just growing pains, or if we are sliding down a slope from which we can never ascend?

“The digital transition in schools requires large investments of capital, and administrators are charged with both finding this capital and deciding how it is to be used. They also have the responsibility of justifying their actions if test scores don’t improve—or worse, if test scores decline. Teachers, on the other hand, are experiencing a skyrocketing workload. Many are exhausted.

“Additionally, many of these same instructors claim to be spending a lot more hours working. In a Guardian Teacher Network survey, 82 percent said their workload was unmanageable, and about 3/4 said their workload was affecting their physical and their mental health.”

The Forest for the Trees

It sounds like technology, though good for the learner, may be placing a stranglehold on public education. So, what’s the answer? Have we added too much technology, too fast? Should we back off and return to the idyllic classrooms of the 1950s?

In today’s world, that’s not an option. In other words, not just no, but hell no.

Or as Cauthen more eloquently puts it: “It may surprise you, but the problem isn’t too much technology, it’s not enough. And not by just a little.

“Most non-technical teachers and administrators cannot see what’s missing; they only see what is there now. The fact is, there isn’t enough technology in education by an exponential amount.

“What’s missing is an autonomous digitally-oriented alternative with full coverage of all subjects that has learner centricity as its very first and only relevant precept. It should have the same level of dazzle as the biggest online shopping sites, media hubs and consumer games mixed in with the best of machine intelligence, online chat or telecommuting teachers-on-demand yet crafted.

“Properly implemented technology allows for individual content and lines of questioning to build from foundations around an individual learner. It would leverage technology directly, without consideration for the existing institutional or traditional teacher-learner structure.”

And therein lies the rub.

Properly implemented technology will leverage technology directly, without consideration for the existing institution or traditional teacher-learner structure. That means the education industry will have to give up the one thing that means the most to them, control. And not just control of roughly $700 Billion in local, state and federal tax dollars, but control of an absolute monopoly on one of the largest industries in the world.

The War for Survival has Begun

We tend to believe that things that are part of our popular culture have become our right. And even though it’s not constitutionally guaranteed, education is necessary in today’s world. That said, there is no reason to believe that the government should be the only or even the best provider. Don’t get me wrong. I have spent a large portion of my life in the education biz, covering stories of education heroes and student triumphs. I want nothing more than to see public education transition to a better, more relevant version of itself. But the clock is ticking. And Americans are getting inpatient.

“The next thing needed is a strategic plan,” says Cauthen, “that would encompass a role and responsibility shift for everyone at a gradual-enough scale that all the current players in the education scene could follow the path to give the best of both worlds, blended together in a wonderful orchestration. It is entirely possible with the right planning on a national scale. The war for the survival of public schools has begun. The number of people arguing about the merits of public education has never been greater. The number of families opting out of traditional education (homeschooling, charter schools, students taking public school courses from home, etc.) is accelerating and has never been higher.

“Many people believe that public education is so embedded in our psyches that it is a certainty, like death and taxes. But as more people discover alternatives, and especially the simplicity of a tech-delivered alternative, there is the danger that a negative momentum will build. That negativity has the power to kill public education or force ever more brutal reforms.”

You need to ask yourself, what type of education do I want for my children? What’s the best way to prepare my children for the future workforce they are likely to find? Is my child’s school the best alternative? If not, you are perfectly free to find alternatives. But you are also free to demand that your child’s school offers the kind of technology and courseware available commercially online or in charter schools. After all, your tax dollars are footing the bill, and everyone from the superintendent to the teacher works for you and your child. If they have a problem with that, feel free to give them my name.

Charles Sosnik is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is an education journalist and editor living in picturesque Gastonia, North Carolina. He is an education fellow at the EP3 Foundation and frequent writer and columnist for some of the most influential media in education including The Learning Counsel, NSBA Journal, EdNews Daily and edCircuit.

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