There are a dizzying number of theories out there about American education. Smaller classrooms are the solution one day, the next, iPads. Glenn Harlan Reynolds of Instapundit takes on these ideas and makes his own predictions in his new book, The New School. I talked with him about his conclusion that the future of American education is rooted in technology, choice, and customization. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity and length.
How did schools get to be like they are now?
Our models for education, both K-12 and higher ed, were basically imported from Germany in the 19th century. Those 19th-century German models were in many ways not bad models for the United States in the 19th century. But now that we are in 21st-century America, they don’t seem to be working that well. That’s sort of the starting point for my discussion.
Why do these German models fail us now in the 21st century?
Well in both cases, as is typical of established models in almost any area, they primarily work for the benefit of the people inside. I quote John Hicks the economist saying, "The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life." And that is basically what happened here. You have the quasi-monopoly with mostly unionized teachers in K-12 and the tenured professoriate in higher ed. Frankly the administrators on both sides have arranged things, as people naturally tend to do out of human nature, in ways that make their lives as comfortable and pleasant and secure as possible. The problem with that is those are not necessarily the ways that serve the people that the institutions are supposed to serve.
At the K-12 level, we really still have the 19th-century model. That is relatively easy for the people who are teaching, but it doesn’t necessarily serve children well. It’s not sufficiently customized, and it just doesn’t respond to a lot of the newer things we have learned about how people learn and how to present information. It was designed to teach people how to be punctual and orderly and well-organized and diligent and all the sorts of characteristics that you needed to have a successful Industrial Revolution. We implemented it and we did have a pretty successful Industrial Revolution and the Industrial Revolution made people a lot healthier and wealthier and better off, so that was all great. But the structure of the schools was factory-like. The output of the schools was as close to a standardized product as they could make it. If you were a kid who didn’t fit in very well, if you were a square peg and they wanted you in a round hole, the solution of the traditional schools K-12 was basically to use a bigger hammer. That was hard for a lot of people, and a lot of people didn’t get as much from it as they should have. And it’s no longer necessary.
On the higher ed level, the problem is a little different. What you have is the cost of the college education increasing at slightly more than double the rate of family income increasing and the difference being made up for with debt, primarily student-loan debt. That doesn’t work once the debt reaches an unsustainable point. We’ve about reached the point where the student loan debt burden is sufficiently high that the increased earnings from going to college often don’t justify taking on the debt. In response to that we are already seeing changes in behavior as people are getting choosier about where to go to college.
So the pressure on the higher ed system is that it has been built on the expectation of ever-increasing tuition income backed up by government-subsidized student loans. It’s going to have to adapt to a situation in which resources will no longer be increasing and in which consumers are going to be much more skeptical.
In your book, you predict that there are big and controversial changes coming to education, like homeschooling, charter schools, and online courses. Let’s start with homeschooling: Why is it a good model for the 21st century?
Well, homeschooling of course isn’t for everyone. It is, however, very useful for a lot of people. The real advantage of homeschooling for people who want to do it is no one cares about your kid as much as you do. And if you’ve got the time and inclination to put that into it, you can get good results. So that is my take on homeschooling. And The Atlantic article I quote on it shows another great advantage, which is that if you are in a market like New York, say, where the public schools are lousy and the private schools are ridiculously expensive, then homeschooling provides an opportunity for people who don’t have enough money for private school but value their kids’ education too much to send them to public school to still live in New York as opposed to having to move somewhere else. I think those are all similar problems for people in a lot of different areas.
How do online courses meet today’s needs?
My daughter did almost all of her high school on online school. We found that pretty satisfactory because that way we didn’t have to do the homeschooling. She was able to do it selectively. As an example of the kind flexibility that technology brings, her way to do a class was to spend three weeks nonstop on a class. She finished a year’s worth of work in one class in three weeks of intensive effort instead of little dribs and drabs along the year the way they do in public school. And that’s something you couldn’t do without a technological platform that lets you move at your own pace.
What about online schooling at the higher ed level? Do you think it has the potential to replace the traditional college experience?
In one sense there is nothing potential about it. It is already replacing universities to some degree because there are a nontrivial number of people who have been getting degrees online and have been getting them for a while. How big of a competitive threat it is to the whole system is hard to say. I don’t think brick-and-mortar schools are going to go away. But I think for a lot of people, and especially older people, something that is more seamlessly integrated into your life and doesn’t require a 24/7 commitment has a lot to offer.
One of the rigidities in our higher-education model is the notion that you are basically going to take four years of your life and you are going to go somewhere and you are going to learn everything you need to know. And then you are going to be educated, and with your education tank full you are going to go out and live your life. And these days it doesn’t really work that way. Things change too much. Careers change a lot. There are a lot of older people who really don’t want to go back and spend four years as Joe College and Betty Coed going to classes but need to get an education. And I think the online model has really flowered most in that regard. Now whether it will also start to cut into the traditional 18 to 22 college population, it’s hard to say but if it’s going to be cost-effective, sure it will. If you’re 18 years old and you can go to college online, and also work in a job and also live at home, your net cost of going to college is vastly lower than if you leave home, go somewhere where you really can’t work much, have to pay to live in a dorm, have to buy a meal plan, and have to pay full tuition.
You also write that school choice and charters will be a part of a modern education model. What is it about school choice works for today’s students and parents?
School choice is a popular thing and I think it is consistent with the ethos of the 21st century. I mean we live in a time when there are 1,000 different kinds of shampoo: Why would we only have one school? Kids are different; there are lots of different ways to educate them. And vouchers or charter schools I think are likely to continue because what we are seeing already in a lot of big school districts and some not-so-big ones is that they are hemorrhaging students. Their parents don’t think they are doing a good enough job educating their kids, so [parents] are taking those kids out. And they are willing to send their kids to private schools, which costs a lot of money, or to homeschool them, which takes a big investment of time. They are doing that because they care a lot about their kids and they want them to get a good education. But the result of this is public schools are having to lay off teachers and close down schools and the like. With that happening, there is going to be a lot of pressure to find a way to keep these parents happy. I think the sort of savior for the public school system is charter schools and things that let people exercise a lot of educational choice while within the public school system because when people stay within the public school system they retain loyalty to it, so they are more likely to support taxes for it and they get counted as enrollees for federal funding and the like.
What will the downsides of these reforms look like?
It’s going to be like almost any other system: Life for the producers is going to become less comfortable and probably less lucrative and life for the consumers is going to become a bit easier and cheaper. Net, we will probably be better off as a society, but, as I say in my conclusion, with a quote from Arthur Allen Leff, just because it’s better for society as a whole doesn’t mean some people won’t be lashed by the flailing distribution curve, and that’s certainly right.
Why haven’t these changes happened yet? And what has to happen for them to occur?
Well, things change when there is more pressure to change than there is ability to resist the change, and I think we are approaching that point. I quote Herbert Stein, “Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.” I think we are getting pretty close to that. I mean there are really starting to be signs of change and in fact everything is happening faster than expected. I shipped off the manuscript for this book in June and I have been reading stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Ed and stuff and it’s like, “Oh no this is happening too soon! This shouldn’t happen until after my book comes out! What if everything I predict happens before January when the book comes out?” The thing about this is this kind of change tends to happen kind of like the quote about bankruptcy in The Great Gatsby, you know, very slowly and then all at once. I think that we're coming to the end of the “very slowly” phase and getting to the “all at once.” I think there is going to be fairly dramatic change and a lot of new models. Some of these new models won’t work that well and some of them will, and there will be a period of where are we now? And then it’ll work out.