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Robots Don’t Pay Dues

July 29, 2009

By Marcus A. Winters

Imagine that an ordinary American family — let’s call them the van Winkles — fell asleep in 1959 and awoke today. Technology would have changed much of their daily lives. To do his old job, Dad needs to learn how to operate a computer. Finding that her new microwave, electronic dishwasher, and robotic vacuum cleaner have left her little to do at home, Mom decides to seek work herself. Even Rover’s days have changed: An invisible fence keeps him from running away, and an electronic feeder dispenses his lunch, now that no one is at home to keep an eye on him.

But for Junior, a fourth grader, little seems unfamiliar at his school. Just as before, he’s one of about 20 kids, their textbooks are opened on their desks, and they’re sitting opposite their teacher as she gives the day’s lesson. What little technology he encounters simply makes the old seem new — there are no meaningful differences between blackboards, overhead projectors, and PowerPoint presentations.

Why is Junior’s classroom strangely immune to forces that have transformed every other aspect of American life? It can’t be because the education system was perfected long ago. Rather, the public-school classroom has resisted the valuable innovations that technology brings because the powerful adults who run the system want it that way.

Imagine that an ordinary American family — let’s call them the van Winkles — fell asleep in 1959 and awoke today. Technology would have changed much of their daily lives. To do his old job, Dad needs to learn how to operate a computer. Finding that her new microwave, electronic dishwasher, and robotic vacuum cleaner have left her little to do at home, Mom decides to seek work herself. Even Rover’s days have changed: An invisible fence keeps him from running away, and an electronic feeder dispenses his lunch, now that no one is at home to keep an eye on him.

But for Junior, a fourth grader, little seems unfamiliar at his school. Just as before, he’s one of about 20 kids, their textbooks are opened on their desks, and they’re sitting opposite their teacher as she gives the day’s lesson. What little technology he encounters simply makes the old seem new — there are no meaningful differences between blackboards, overhead projectors, and PowerPoint presentations.

Why is Junior’s classroom strangely immune to forces that have transformed every other aspect of American life? It can’t be because the education system was perfected long ago. Rather, the public-school classroom has resisted the valuable innovations that technology brings because the powerful adults who run the system want it that way.

As Moe and Chubb correctly point out, the unions’ special political power derives from their ubiquity. Mandatory universal education extends their influence to every U.S. political district. They have gained an effective veto over Democratic-party initiatives by combining the length of their reach with the nearly infinite resources that come from collecting union dues from nearly every public-school teacher in the nation.

Naturally, the unions have an easier time defending the status quo that than reformers have attacking it. For one thing, it is hard to convince Americans that they must rethink the system that formed them. The reformers have more than made their case in academia, but still struggle in the policy world. Partly that is because dubious evidence and weak arguments, when backed by overwhelming influence and publicity, are more than a match for overwhelming evidence and strong arguments. How else can we interpret the public’s penchant for reducing class size, a formula for bloated teacher payrolls and technology’s marginalization?

In order to make real and lasting changes to the system, the sunshine of technology must be coupled with a political phenomenon capable of weakening the teachers’ unions. In a curious twist of history, the advent of Barack Obama may already have altered the political calculus. The unions actively supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, and by the time they jumped on his bandwagon, Obama’s monumental success at fundraising had freed him from dependence on union dollars. Hence the reformist noises we have heard from Obama himself and his Department of Education.

It is possible that the efficiency of the Democratic-party machine and the diversification of its funding sources will have a corresponding impact on the voting habits of sympathetic Democrats in Congress. The more flexible statements of American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten since the election may be a straw in the wind. Contra Moe and Chubb, change is not inevitable, but it suddenly seems more possible — because of political breakthroughs, along with the technological ones.

Original Source: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=OGY5NWZlYjYyOWM2YzNjNzc5OGIzZjZkNTBhMTEyZDU=

 

 
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