Most educators are blocking the Information Age because they will lose money and power. It’s time to break the stranglehold.

The Information Age is radically changing the economics of education. The Clinton administration has proclaimed that if we construct an advanced national information infrastructure, “the best schools, teachers, and courses would be available to all students, without regard to geography, distance, resources or disability.” If only schools can get the best technology and train teachers how to use it, so the reasoning goes, the wonders of the Information Age will come to K-12 education.

But in the shift from Industrial Age to Information Age education, most educators will lose money, status and power. They cannot be expected to accept this change without a fight. Given the formidable political clout of the country’s 6 million public school employees, their fight for survival will not be ineffective. Although our nation’s leaders would like to pretend otherwise, the Information Age brings the economics and politics of education into sharp conflict. The new education economics include the following trends:

From labor to capital intensive. Industrial Age education uses little technology and lots of labor. Today, more than 95% of the instructional budget goes to salaries, while productivity improvements are minimal. Information Age education, in contrast, is capital intensive. As technology becomes more productive in comparison to labor, it constitutes a larger share of the budget.

From local to national. Industrial Age education is transportation intensive; the learner must physically travel to the key resources (e.g. schools). Information Age education is communication intensive; the learner can access educational resources from anywhere in the world.

From small- to large-scale production. Industrial Age education employs approximately 3 million public K-12 teachers. Tens of thousands of teachers teach identical subjects. Information Age education employs far fewer core teachers. Instead of 100,000 Algebra I teachers creating their own mom-and-pop, lecture-based courses, there can be 10 star teachers, given tens of millions of dollars to develop truly professional interactive courses.

From monopoly to competition. Industrial Age education is a natural monopoly. Traveling beyond the neighborhood school to take a course is impractical, so although in theory thousands of courses exist, in practice one is assigned by fiat. Information Age education allows students and parents to choose from among many different courses, thus creating natural competition.

From small- to large-scale evaluation. Industrial Age education requires frequent classroom-by-classroom evaluation in a largely private and inaccessible space. This type of course evaluation is exceedingly expensive, if not illegal, and thus uneconomic. Information Age education courses may be taken by thousands or even millions of students over many years, creating a large, practical market for course evaluation.

In summary, the new education economics suggest a major shift in power from regional educators to national educators and from education producers to education consumers. The educators who will lose out in this transition have powerful political resources to impede it.

Public school unions. Public schools employ 6 million unionized employees, including teachers, administrators and maintenance workers. The unions are extremely influential in setting local education policy and budgets. Since every dollar spent on capital is a dollar taken away from labor, union muscle opposes technology expenditures. Consequently, many districts have thousands of job applicants for basic teaching positions but cannot afford to maintain their buildings or provide basic instructional supplies and technology. Most of the money for technology in the classroom comes not from a local school district’s general fund, but from federal and state grants, private company donations, PTA contributions and special technology bonds.

Teachers in the classroom. Technology can be a direct threat to the classroom teacher. Students already can access multimedia-based foreign language instruction superior to that found in most K-12 schools. Classroom teachers will not use a resource that advertises their deficiencies, let alone beg their administration or school board for it. Computer applications that do not threaten the classroom teacher are exceptions to the rule. These include using technology to automate grading and take attendance, to communicate with peers, and to access impersonal reference works.

Various laws and regulations. Regional educators’ monopoly power is protected in thousands of hard-to-repeal laws and regulations, including 1) state licensing laws that prevent people from teaching who have not spent thousands of dollars and countless hours earning an obsolete education degree; 2) state licensing laws that prevent teachers from teaching across state lines (e.g., via telecommunications); 3) state licensing laws that prevent people with general management skills, but without extensive training in an education school, from attaining positions such as school superintendent; 4) collective-bargaining contracts that dictate working conditions, such as limits on real or virtual class size; 5) collective-bargaining laws that require all teachers to be paid the same amount regardless of demand and supply for their particular positions and level of job performance; and 6) labor laws that make it hard to replace employees ill-suited to supporting technology in education.

Although many local educators are enthusiastic about the new technology, they are unlikely to lead us into Information Age education because it is not in their self-interest to do so. In the coming years we will be flooded by arguments about the benefits of regionally based education. But the public should be suspicious of these. Few stand up to careful examination.

The time has come to bring visibility to the special-interest politics of education and to break the stranglehold of the local educators. The Republican solution of transportation-based “school choice” (families choosing between schools in a limited geographic area) gets us nowhere because it overlooks the problem of education as a natural monopoly. The Democratic solution of spending money on technology and teacher training gets us nowhere because it overlooks the problem of the regional educators’ incentives.

The solution must begin with a system of publicly funded, communications-based choice (families choosing between different means of instruction using new technologies). Only this system can break the natural education monopoly and thereby give educators both the incentives and resources to serve the public.


Human element key to education

Technology a threat to teachers’ jobs?

Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union, says that isn’t so.

Geiger says technology will instead change the nature of teacher’s jobs, making them more effective and enhancing their ability to do their job. He sees the teacher of the future as the crucial link between the new information technology and the students.

But Geiger and other educators also say there are limitations to technology. It cannot:

  • Be the panacea for budget cutters who envision hundreds of students sitting in front of monitors, with talking heads providing cheap, mass education.
  • Replace the special teacher-student relationship.
  • Become the main focus of education. The supporters of high-tech, the argument goes, may be overselling its importance to achievement in schools.
  • Guarantee equal levels of access to all students.
  • Set academic standards, considered one of the most important things educators do to improve students’ performance.
  • Let students know what is expected of them and evaluate their performance. “Technology is a tool to achieve an end, but we also need to set the goals,” says AFT spokesperson Janet Bass.
  • Enforce discipline in the classroom, control troublemakers and ensure a peaceful classroom for those students who want to study.
  • Replace the ability of children to learn to get along with others.

“It can’t replace the social experience,” says June Million of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). “People are worried that children have a relationship with the (computer) screen.”

Source: Snider, J.H., “Education technology clashes with teachers,” USA Today, May 15, 1996, p. 11A.