Education, Circa 2038

About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

educationreformTwenty-five years from now, I will be just shy of 65 years old. I should be retired by then. As I read recently about Amazon’s delivery drone idea and at the same time thought about the seeming inevitability of the Common Core State Standards and their associated tests (even, eventually, in my non-CCSS home state), I began to daydream about the near future of education. Here is a short description of where I think we’ll be twenty-five years hence. Feel free to meet my prediction (which you may or may not like; I don’t necessarily like everything about it) with your own, and include a link to whatever you come up with in the comments. I’d really like to read about the most optimistic and dystopian views of the future that educators and ed-watchers harbor.

First, tiny buzzing drones will zip overhead irregularly in 2038. The low sky won’t yet be full of them like the interstates are full of cars, but that’s coming. They will be delivering books and what few paper letters and bills still go out, and they will also patrol the streets and generate video for our police forces and weather and news reporters. But there won’t yet be a great number of them. That’s still to come in 2038, but it will come. A swarm of hovering devices will eventually clog into bustling lines in directional lanes–communicating with one another to avoid collisions–and will periodically splinter off, dip down to drop their deliveries at our doorsteps or photograph suspicious or interesting interactions, and quickly rejoin the overhead traffic pattern to return to their home bases.

But that has little to do with education, and here we talk about education.

First off, I believe the Common Core State Standards will almost certainly be fully online in all 50 states by 2038. (Sorry or congrats, depending on which side you’re on, but that’s what I think will happen.) There will only be one national test over these standards that survives, and it will be a very big deal, particularly at the exit level. The hype of the recent “PISA Day” event will pale in comparison to the Super Bowl Sunday-like extravaganza that the federal Department of Education will put on annually for the release of our kids’ scores. The highest-performing states will be enthusiastically lauded, and the lowest-scoring will be passive-aggressively shamed. Improvement will be rewarded, however, and governors and state education officials will writhe and react and impose all sorts of questionable practices on schoolteachers in desperate attempts not to be the state that is shamed. But the wealthy states and the states that spend the most money uplifting their poorest citizens will inevitably score the highest. Perhaps this will be the greatest contribution of the CCSS and its test–it will force education thinkers to admit that education is about more than education. The relentlessly flagging outcomes of the places where the poor are least protected from squalor and want will perhaps finally breach the defenses of those who don’t want to provide them a higher and tauter safety net, one that doesn’t let them rebound off the concrete when they fall. But the negatives will be there too, because the rhetoric of the corporations’ foundations and think tanks will persist. They will still be pushing a portfolio model, and they will still be pushing for more accountability for traditional public schools and more deregulation for publicly-funded schools outside the traditional model. The organizations that pay the highest taxes–multinational corporations–will still push for punitive measures against states, school districts, teachers, and students. They will long for the heady days of NCLB, when we shamed and blamed gleefully.

Happily, though, we will have learned from our mistakes. The public and the media will not take staffers of think tanks who push ideology under the guise of ed-journalism with a grain of salt when they claim that privatization warnings are a red herring. They will have seen enough school closings and inequitable and destructive under-funding by then, and they will believe for the most part that there is a subtle scheme afoot, an almost unconscious undying movement not to better but rather to batter the public school system. This movement will have done a great deal of damage to the traditional public schools, but these schools will remain.

Charter schools will remain as well, but they will be under largely the same regulations as our traditional public schools. All schools will teach the same standards (as they do now), and both sets of schools will display a similar range of outcomes and a similar percentage of successful and unsuccessful schools (as they do now). The proposition that charter schools “do it better” will have fallen away under the weight of evidence to the contrary. In the case of charters as well as traditional schools, those that enroll the most poor and special-needs students and the most students from English-language-learning backgrounds will perform worst. But our government and media will have long since shed their well-intentioned marriage to the idea that these students should be expected to score on par with students who come to school with more resources and fewer challenges absent major improvements in our social supports policies. Proficiency targets for students will be adjusted according to social resource starting points available to them. Pressure on teachers to overcome resource deficits will be gradually replaced with pressure on politicians to overcome resource deficits. As we tack student expectations to available resource levels, rhetoricians will say we are lowering our expectations for poor student performance; the other side’s rhetoricians will argue contrarily that we are raising our expectations and upping the pressure on policy-makers for the provision of poor student supports.

In 2038, accountability will account for differences in our student bodies. As such, there will be no punishments for teachers who choose to teach the most challenging students. Quite the opposite, in fact. Extra funding and ample supports will flow toward the schools that serve the most challenging students. This shift in our approach to education will spur a renaissance in traditional public schools that had once been considered our “worst” and most dangerous schools. They will suddenly draw our best teachers, because there will be significant bonuses attached to those jobs. And not only will they have the highest-paid teachers, they will also have the smallest class sizes, because our student funding formulas will have changed. Some genius between now and then will use math and statistics and economic modeling to calculate the real cost of educating a student to our nation’s standards, and will vary that price tag for a student whose parents earn a salary at ten percent of the regional average salary, and twenty percent, and so on up to one hundred percent and even up to one thousand percent. The model will clearly show that it gets costlier to educate a student to national standards as his or her parents’ salary decreases, and school funding will be tied to the real cost of getting the job done. As such, we will have great teachers in our (formerly) most troubled schools for four reasons: teacher pay will be highest there, class sizes will be smallest there, the mission of changing lives will be most satisfying there, and the national esteem for teachers whose students are both poor and successful will be extremely gratifying. But we will yet have amazing teachers in our affluent traditional public schools as well, because the job will still be easiest and the students more uniformly motivated there. Great ratings for teachers will be almost assured in such schools, because those students will go into the national CCSS assessments well-prepared. Class sizes will be a little bigger, and teachers won’t earn as much as those in tougher schools, but not all teachers are primarily motivated by the paycheck.

Charter schools in 2038 will still exist, but the scammiest of them will be gone. The era of de-regulated charters will have produced enough embarrassment to have spurred meaningful regulations. There won’t be any caps on the numbers of charter schools, but there will be stringent quality assurance mechanisms in place so that crumby charters don’t get chartered in the first place. There will also be a probationary period for all new schools, during which they can and will be shuttered if they fail to abide by a host of financial, academic, enrollment, and transparency requirements. After a period, however–maybe 10 years–schools will exit probationary status and will essentially become permanent public schools under private management.

This probationary setup will extend not only to charter schools. New traditional schools will be probationary at first. Traditional school campuses that have been cornerstones in their neighborhoods, though, will no longer be shuttered unless enrollment drops below a threshold. When long-lived schools struggle academically, it will no longer be acceptable for state education departments to turn their backs on the schools without first investing sufficient resources in their remediation. The phrase “turnaround schools” will fall by the wayside, and federal involvement in turnarounds will have died an ignominious death. But at the state level, under pressure by local voters, 100-year-old schools that anchor communities will come to be celebrated as “comeback schools,” as state education departments morph from “gotcha” agencies to “helped ya” agencies. A few high-profile, successful comebacks will spark voter imaginations, and school shutdowns will no longer be socially acceptable when the schools we are talking about are longstanding community institutions. Further, the federal government will have established a rule that requires states to demonstrate that any school facing any kind of punitive measure must not have been subject to inadequate or inequitable levels of funding. Inadequacy at that time will have a definition tied to the real cost of educating a student, with weights for students of varied backgrounds facing varied challenges. When a school’s funding per pupil falls beneath what this formula requires, any punitive measures intended for the school and its workers will instead be borne by the state agency that permitted the underfunding.

Online courses will exist, but quality assurance mechanisms will assure that they are legitimate courses with legitimate expectations for the students. Attendance requirements, coursework requirements, and proctored exams will guarantee that online courses aren’t fluff anymore. These stipulations will restore the legitimacy of this approach, but they will also vastly reduce the numbers of students taking online courses. Rural schools will utilize the courses to provide subjects that small numbers of students desire. If a school has two students interested in accounting or French, online courses will exist and the rural school will be able to obtain those courses. But large national online course providers will have shuttered completely or else scaled back operations due to a lack of demand. Today’s model of large numbers of unmotivated students checking out of school because of rules they don’t like or bad grades or poor attendance and then signing up for online coursework which they don’t take seriously and often don’t complete (while guaranteeing funding redirected toward the provider) will not last. The academic performance of online students will be scrutinized and online course providers that misrepresent the quality of education they provide in their advertising will face civil and criminal penalties that will drive them either out of business or to reform themselves. There will be some children who opt for online courses for their entire educational experience, but they will usually be extremely bright and self-directed children, or children who frequently move or who have social anxiety issues, or whose parents opt to educate at home for personal reasons. Online courses will not be blow-off courses, though, and they will obligate students and overseers (parents or teachers) to take them very seriously. In other words, the quality of online classes will rise, but the quantity will fall.

Merit pay as we think of it now will have fallen by the wayside because reformers will have been forced to admit the impossibility of teasing out all the factors that drive a student’s test scores up or down. They will give up on using test scores to isolate merit, as there is too much noise in the signal. Student surveys will probably survive as one measure of teacher quality, along with teacher evaluations that have been drastically altered to more readily reflect reality. Peer review will be a common trait of teacher appraisal methodologies. There will be small bonuses tied to certain teacher traits in 2038, but the much-ballyhooed zeitgeist for stack-ranking our teachers will have already died an inglorious death. Many education thinkers and pundits in 2038 will write derisively of the massive pressure that was once brought forth to implement in our schools a personnel-management scheme modeled after something widely regarded as Microsoft Corporation’s greatest failure. Salary differentiation among teachers will be driven more by need and difficulty of the various assignments, and less by the pretend-wizardry of determining who is most- and least-deserving of extra pay.

Pre-K will be free and available for all American children.

Private school vouchers will still be lobbied-for as the magic pill that, via competition, will drive school quality through the roof. However, the anti-voucher campaign of public education supporters will have resulted in a policy that all schools receiving public funds must be publicly accountable for successfully imparting the standards-based curriculum, and success will be measured by students’ results on their CCSS assessments. Many private schools will no longer be interested in receiving public funds under these conditions. Vouchers will return to their long-cherished role as a pet project of certain economists and theoreticians.

We will no longer attempt to test every student in multitudinous subjects almost every year. Rather, there will be a national assessment for all students at the end of their high school careers, and there will be benchmarks at each grade level using sampling techniques that preserve class time for most students most of the time.

Curriculum narrowing will have been eliminated because of a national outcry from parents who want more from education than mere math and ELA proficiency. The message that over-testing and narrow emphases are destructive for children’s full development will win the day. Those who once single-mindedly pushed for math and ELA proficiency and were willing to burn down the whole house of holistic education to attain that will either admit their error, or pretend they were never part of all that, or else lose their authority.

America, unlike other international education systems, will cling to interscholastic sports and will continue to develop confidence in our student bodies alongside rote proficiency. This will continue to set us apart in our nation’s economic productivity, and the Asian nations will continue to envy the creativity and divergent thinking of our workforce, and will continue to tweak their education approaches to de-emphasize test prep and rote skills.

The CCSS themselves will only have been saved because two major changes will have occurred. Crucially, states will have been given limited authority to tweak the contents of the standards. In other words, Texas officials will have been allowed to make the Texas CCSS a tad more conservative, and Massachusetts officials will have been allowed to keep them a tad more liberal. The federal government would have at some point between now and 2038 realized that a.) the standards weren’t going to survive without genuine local agency, and that b.) if all states are brought into the national standards house (even with slightly altered standards from place to place), then over time, those disparate states would grow closer and closer to some national norm on what they teach. The feds will learn the art of loose coupling. Just as national news anchors with Midwest accents can soften the nation’s regional drawls and pull everyone toward their center of linguistic gravity, so too can common standards pull us all together, but they can’t be introduced as hard and fast rules that all must accede to. CCSS is the meat, the feds will realize, but Texans and Tennesseans will only eat it if they get to season it to their liking. (Side note: don’t tell me Memphis barbecue is better.) The feds will also have to admit that their role–by law–in the ongoing development of these standards must be more limited than what they have wanted. The CCSS will actually become state standards. The grip of the Department of Ed and the Gates Foundation on the content of the standards will necessarily slip. There will be a single overarching federal framework that will survive, and it will look much as the CCSS look today, but the states will be free to alter them. They won’t alter them much, though, because the national exam will be waiting, and no state will want to come in last. Compliance measures from heavy-handed federal officials won’t protect the quality of the standards; self-interest will. The feds will eventually learn to embrace curricular and standards flexibility-within-reason at the state level.

The second major change to the CCSS that will save them will be that they will be opened up for democratic input. There will be major nationwide standards fights over evolution, climate change, whether Nelson Mandela should be taught as a hero or a communist, whether or not Thomas Jefferson was a Christian, and so forth. Many of these fights will occur at the curriculum level, but some will touch the standards level.

These fights will be ugly, but we will by then be intelligent enough to know that they are necessary. Folks dismissing opponents of the CCSS as conspiracy theorists and kid-coddlers–silly people, not to be taken seriously–will finally wise-up and realize that the people with CCSS concerns must have an opportunity to express those concerns and have their ideas compete for legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas. The CCSS–when opened up for national critique and subjected to a referendum-style possibility for editing or tweaking–will stop being received as an imposition by distant rulers a la King George and will come to be seen as having some sort of legitimacy. In short, by 2038, it will be seen as short-sighted and counter-productive for ivory tower education and political elites to impose curricular standards on the nation just because they know what’s good for the little people. Democracy always wins in the end, because there are more of the little people. CCSS will be felicitously hi-jacked by a representative sample of the people of the United States. Some won’t like this, but CCSS will retain its flavor–critical thinking skills will be central–and most changes will be minor and specific. But they will change, and the people will drive the change. And those who oppose the democratization of the standards will be seen as petty standards tyrants whose mission for years was to prevent regular people–mommies and teachers–from messing up their precious and perfect document.

Tough. It will happen, or else the standards will not survive. There must be a viable vehicle for input by the people, for needed change as politics and the environment and our understandings change. The CCSS will no longer belong to some special population of educationists, and will instead belong to the states and the people of the states.

This means that not only will the CCSS change, but that they will differ slightly from state to state. Major corporations pushing for CCSS will accept these conditions as they evolve from the bottom up, because they will see that the alternative is the death of common standards and the indefinite continuation of totally different standards development processes from state to state. As much as the slight alteration in the standards between states will cut into these corporations’ bottom lines, the likelihood of losing the CCSS altogether will scare the pants off of them. The titans of national standards and curriculum and ed tech businesses will themselves begin to advocate for CCSS flexibility, and then it will happen.

Finally, the teacher-bashing frenzy that has afflicted our schools since 1983 will be a sad memory in 2038. Certain voices will still be pushing that old narrative, but they will be more isolated than they are today. The term “education reformer” will have graduated from crude dividing line as the strategies for reform become more nuanced and less bipolar. Business-funded foundations will be challenged increasingly for engaging in lobbying activities and laws will evolve to require more transparency from pretend grassroots groups, and these changes will curtail some of the more disingenuous activities that unfold in education policy circles.

These are not necessarily all activities and changes that I want to see–though some of them are–but these are my guesses as to how the memes of education and education reform will evolve as they are subjected to the natural selection of politics, publicity, and the constant cultural shifting that happens all around us at all times. I know some of my friends won’t like entertaining the notion that the CCSS are here to stay, but I honestly sense a sort of inevitability there. Pure local control isn’t coming back; there was too much variation in outcomes under that system. But absolute federal domination is also not likely to endure in our mishmash of states and governments. So the future, I believe, lay in the middle. In my opinion, time is the greatest moderating agent of all.

One other thing: in 2038, we STILL won’t have flying cars. (Come on, car companies.) On the upside, though, texting-while-driving will be perfectly legal, because the newest models will drive themselves.

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About the Author:

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

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