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Maturing Technology and

Economic Density*

by

David Pearce Snyder

Consulting Futurist

 

 

The national debate – or rather, argument – over education reform has covered a lot of ground since the National Commission on Excellence in Education inundated America with six million copies of A Nation at Risk, back in 1983. Local school systems around the country have tried everything from back-to-basics to school uniforms, site-based management to smaller classes, and outcome-based learning to corporal punishment, as well as computers in the classroom and tougher tests for students and teachers. For fifteen years, real teachers in real classrooms with real students have introduced tens of thousands of innovations in schools throughout the country. Individual schools and entire school districts have adopted, to one degree or another, essentially every significant reform proposal that has been put forward. What’s more, some of those local experiments have produced striking improvements in student performance.

But the lessons learned from fifteen years of experimental successes and failures have produced no significant system-wide changes in America’s public schools, and no significant improvement in the national achievement levels of America’s 50 million public school pupils. On June 15, 1999, a plain-spoken Alan Greenspan echoed the prophetic warning of A Nation At Risk when he told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, "I am hard-pressed to see how we can maintain what is increasingly an intellectually-based output system without a better education system."

America’s inability to initiate even one meaningful nationwide education reform over the past 15 years is widely regarded as a singular – and troubling – failure of leadership. Indeed, now that long-forecast shortages of skilled labor have finally appeared in the marketplace, the debate over why educational reform has failed – and whose fault it is – has begun to push the debate over school reform itself into the background. Among those concerned with fixing blame for the unimproved condition of our schools, the "usual suspects" typically include teachers’ unions, religious conservatives, "educrats," the mass media, inept school boards and the Reagan-Bush administrations. In fact, it was the American public who thwarted public school reform over the past fifteen years; and what’s more, they were right!

Falling Wages, Rising Angst

From the mid-1970’s on, the American public had a much less sanguine view of the future than the conventional establishment vision of a high-tech, high-wage 21st Century in which most jobs would require some kind of post-secondary degree. By the time A Nation At Risk was published, average wages in the U.S. had been falling for ten years ... by nearly 11%. More ominously, the biennial Labor Department long-range labor-market forecast for 1983, released a couple of months after A Nation at Risk, projected continued declines in middle and upper income jobs through 1995.

In 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecast that the U.S. economy would create fewer than a half million high tech jobs by 1995, but would add nearly 10 million low-pay, low-tech jobs, such as building custodians, retail salesclerks, cashiers, office clerks, secretaries, waiters and waitresses and health aides. The BLS projections – which proved to be remarkably accurate – also correctly foresaw the elimination of millions of middle-income blue collar jobs as well. By 1995, average wages in America had fallen 15.5% from 1973; male wages dropped 22%, while women’s wages had declined just 7%. (Note: the gap between men’s and women’s wages shrank between 1973 and 1995, largely because the men lost so much ground, and not because women’s wages rose faster than men’s.)

Not only did average wages fall during the fifteen years following the release of A Nation At Risk, but the marketplace demand for college graduates declined as well. By the end of the 1980’s, the U.S. was producing a quarter-million surplus baccalaureates a year, and the over-educated/under-employed college graduate became a stock character in American popular humor. By the mid-1990’s, nearly half of 18 to 24 year olds working full-time jobs in the U.S. were earning less than a poverty wage. As a consequence of their low incomes and dismal career prospects, young people in America began to delay leaving their parents homes, and millions of sons and daughters who left home have subsequently returned, often bringing their spouses and children with them (a phenomenon that demographers call the "baby boom-erang").

At the outset of the 1990’s, national surveys showed that over half of all Americans felt that our best days as a nation were behind us (i.e. the 1950’s and 1960’s); Lou Harris (1993) found that only 25% of Americans felt that their children would be more prosperous than they (the parents) had been. Small wonder that the dire prophecies of A Nation At Risk had fallen on deaf public ears. Moreover, the decline in household income provoked a taxpayers’ revolt that capped or reduced local revenues in large portions of the nation, effectively stemming the flow of additional resources to the nation’s schools at the very moment that the costly imperatives of new information technology, teacher training and swelling enrollments from the "Baby Boom Echo" became paramount.

Even if Americans had believed in the necessity of educational reform, they were in no position to pay for such an endeavor. Moreover, information technology was not yet mature enough during the 1980’s and early 1990’s to provide educators with truly productive new tools. And it is the maturing of our information technology upon which the successful transformation of our nation’s economy -- and our schools - ultimately depends.

The Lively Hand of History

Economic historians have chronicled a number of past technical revolutions (e.g. water, steam and electric power, minted money, the printing press, and the internal combustion engine, etc.) and have found that it characteristically takes two human generations – 75-80 years – for a new technology to evolve from initial demonstration to marketplace generalization. What’s more, it typically requires 2/3 of those years just for a new technology to get useful, reliable and cheap enough to consistently generate a positive return on investment. It is only after a half-century of marketplace maturation that a new technology becomes powerful enough to produce truly revolutionary changes in a nation’s economy and society.

An essential component of technologic maturation is the development of supporting infrastructures. For the steam engine, the enabling infrastructure was a network of inter-city railways. The critical infrastructure for electric power was a grid of power plants and transmission lines, and for the automobile, the infrastructure was a system of paved roads. For the computer, the infrastructure – or "info-structure" – is the Internet. In the mid-1990’s, just as our new info-structure was adding color and graphics – the World Wide Web – and the computer was celebrating its 50th birthday (February 14, 1996), U.S. productivity improvement rates doubled, and wages rose robustly without inflation for the first time in twenty years. We have now sustained this superlative performance for four straight years, and a meta-analysis of the U.S. economy by the Federal Reserve (April, 1999) concluded that America has, in fact, passed through a threshold – or "inflection point" – in multi-factor productivity arising from new, formulaic combinations of human, financial and technologic resources that produce consistently superior sustainable results.

America Gets "Info-Mated"

Since the 1950’s, the computerized future has commonly been described as being "cashless," "paperless" and even "workerless." The principal perceived benefits of information technology involved eliminating the encumbrances and drudgeries of industrial era life and work, rather than conferring new benefits or creating new value of its own. Recently, however, as the Internet has permitted organizations to connect their decision-makers with more timely and more accurate decision-relevant information, employers have begun to more fully appreciate the potential economic value to be added to every aspect of enterprise by "info-mation."

Just as the purpose of "auto-mation" is to mechanically perform the simple, repetitive tasks that are required by physical production, the purpose of "info-mation" is to cybernetically perform the simple repetitive tasks of intellectual production, including data gathering, research, analysis, design, testing, evaluating and planning, etc. And, just as automated physical production required the development of tens of thousands of individual specialized industrial tools – e.g. materials handlers, metal boring machines, pallet racks, polishers, sorters, etc. – info-mation has now set into motion the development of tens of thousands of individual, specialized information handling tools, ranging from single purpose expert systems and statistical algorithms to process simulators and knowledge management programs.

The proliferation of these information-handling tools will, over the next ten years, enable all new employees at all levels of all operations to quickly master the requirements of new jobs, or the use of a new piece of equipment. Computerized "work-day simulators" are already being used by employers to train new hires and screen new recruits in a growing number of fields (e.g. nursing, law-enforcement, etc.) and will be a commonplace component of the Internet job market, which will handle 75% of all U.S. hiring and recruitment within five years. Meanwhile, starting now and extending over the next twenty years, a growing share of all workplace positions will be supported by employer-provided, conversationally-endowed computer persona loaded with job-critical data, procedural knowledge, expert systems and decision simulators. These chatty, info-mated cyber-associates, programmed to be amiable, resourceful and trustworthy, will enable any individual with a genuine mastery of standard, industrial era K-12 curriculum to perform most middle-income jobs in post-industrial America!

If the historic model of techno-economic transformations accurately reflects our current moment in time, the United States has just entered the final phase – the constructive phase – of the Information Revolution. Ahead of us lie twenty years or more of rising productivity and prosperity, fueled by the rapid assimilation of matured information systems and services throughout every function of every private and public enterprise, and into many aspects of community, social and family life. But this rosy scenario will come to pass only if we are able to equip all of our citizens with the capabilities and comprehension to use information technology purposefully.

It is now time to reform public education!

 

We have argued and pontificated as long as we dare. Every semester that passes from now on without statistically significant improvements in student achievement and motivation will drag down current economic performance and jeopardize our long-term prosperity. Americans appear to understand this reality. Since 1996, education improvement has been the top U.S. voter priority, ahead of crime, the economy, drugs or taxes. Indeed, a number of national polls show that 2/3 of American voters want any budget surpluses spent on fixing Social Security, Medicare and education . And certainly, the business community is genuinely behind improved educational achievement. If ever there were a moment to reform public education, this is it.

So what are we all waiting for? A plan of action? A common agenda? A

national program or set of standards?

We’ve been waiting for that sort of top-down mandate for over ten years, and it isn’t going to happen! That’s not the way the USA was designed to work. The Founding Fathers set up the division of governmental authority in the Constitution so that the residual powers were reserved to the state and local governments, to serve, in Jefferson’s words, as "civic laboratories," to solve the problems that progress would inevitably present us with. America is designed to be re-invented from the bottom up!

America’s Schools as Civic Laboratories

As has already been observed, U.S. schools and teachers have been working away in their local civic laboratories for more than a decade, testing new curriculum content, trying dramatically different class schedules, reorganizing school structures and experimenting with new instructional methods and technologies. The successful innovations have been reviewed and re-assessed in the course of over 350 national panels, commissions and committees on education since the mid-1980’s, and the summary conclusions from this nationwide search for the future of education have been reported in such synoptic publications as What Works In Education (published in 1998 by the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies) and A Handbook for Creating Smart Schools (published in 1996 by the National Center to Improve the Tools of Education at the University of Oregon).

Today, over a decade of grass-roots experimentation has shown that most of the conventional reforms promoted since 1983, have little or no impact on student achievement. The good news is that there is a smorgasbord of consistently successful innovations to choose from out there, including project-based learning, team teaching, precision instruction, peer tutoring, integrated curriculum, computer simulations, Net-based collaborations, etc.

Now is the moment for the leaders of America’s civic education laboratories to begin selecting from the marketplace of documented successes proven innovations that they believe will make a comfortable fit with their district’s teachers, staff members and individual school/community cultures. Administrators must become "edu-preneurial," first mobilizing in-house personnel and resources, and then selling the business community, third-party funders, parents and students that the specific innovations to which the district is committed have a proven capacity to achieve what all stake-holders now want: that every graduate of our public schools will be literate, numerate and articulate, and that they will be able to apply those competencies to the day-to-day requirements of their daily life and work in a high-tech future that all Americans, working together, are about to invent.

In particular, the eduprenureal leader must make it clear from the outset that the purpose of each individual innovation, ... each pilot test or skills training program, etc.... is to identify and routinize superior tools and techniques for adoption district-wide – for all students – as rapidly as possible. Most public school program innovations during the past fifteen years have been targeted at special student populations – learning disabled, gifted and talented, economically disadvantaged, etc. As a result, less than 60% of school operating budgets are spent on "regular education" today, down from 80% in 1980. Genuine school reform must be a rising tide that lifts all students, and not just those with mobilized parents.

Of course, a superintendent will "draw fire" for promoting innovations or changes based upon their proven superior performance rather than their political currency. But, in the contentious environment of this revolutionary moment in history, superintendents are likely to be shot at – and/or sued – in any case. You might as well take the high ground and get shot at for something worthwhile. To prosper in revolutionary times, you must be a successful revolutionary. And we are, by all accounts, in the middle of a genuine techno-economic revolution, ... the sort of watershed event about which historians typically write entire text books.

Fifty years from now, whole history chips will be titled "High-Noon for High-Tech in America," recounting how well, or how badly, the United States re-invented its principal institutions for the information age. For the re-invention of education, a crucial factor will be the ability of professional school leaders at the local level to wrest control of reform in their districts from the partisans and the ideologues. and to take advantage of this crucial moment of technologic potency, returning prosperity and political opportunity.

For America’s public schools, at long last, the future really is NOW!

 

 

 

© 1999 David Pearce Snyder

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