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Will Technology Lead to the Unbundling of Schools?

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I want to pick up a topic I started last week: the visions that free marketeers have for technology and education (I got sidetracked by EdX, my reflections on EdX, and my students at MIT.) I was reminded to revisit the topic by Thomas Freidman's last op-ed in the New York Times, where he raises concerns about our transition from a market economy to a market society, where civic institutions are replaced by market institutions and everything is for sale and everything is provided by private institutions. The process that Freidman derides is enthusiastically recommended in the Fordham Institute's recent report: Education Reform in the Digital Era. The report proposes a radical realignment of school funding, education delivery, and the purpose of schooling in order to transform schools from civic institutions to market institutions.

The plan espoused by Education Reform in the Digital Era proposes that students should no longer receive a comprehensive education from a single school. Rather, we should "unbundle" holistic schools and replace them with a free market of classes, where kids buy their education like they were buying dinner from conveyor belt sushi: whatever suits their fancy, one piece at a time.

The key policy change that the Fordham authors propose is to "voucherize" school funding, so every student gets directly allotted their portion of municipal educational expenses. Then, as Paul Hill explains:

Each student's account would, in a sense, constitute a "backpack" of funding that the student would carry along to any eligible school or instructional programs in which he or she enrolls. The contents of the backpack would be flexible dollars, not coupons whose use is restricted to a particular course or service.

If a family decided to rely on one school or instructional provider for all of a child's education, all of the money would go to that school or provider. However, students might also enroll in courses provided by different organizations, in which case the funds would be divided. Students and families would then be free to shop for the best combination of courses and experiences their backpack funds could cover. Providers would compete with one another to offer services that were of high quality, effective, and reasonably priced.

In this model, schools are no longer comprehensive providers of a holistic educational experience, but rather the producers and marketers of a line of educational products. Students could outfit themselves with an entire line from one school, or they could could pick and choose from providers, buying math from Khan Academy, Spanish from Rosetta Stone, and biology from the Discovery Institute, the chief advocates of Intelligent Design. No longer would kids be bound to their neighborhood school; instead, they could shop the world for courses.

The rub of the issue is this: can schools be reduced to a shopping list of courses, or do schools serve a purpose that requires a cohesive community? I firmly believe that the purpose of education is not just to deliver academic content but to prepare students as citizens in a democracy. It's not clear to me how schools can perform this civic function as a shared, community space if every kid is purchasing their own unique experience.

For instance, many schools adopt "team" or "house" structures where groups of students work with the same cohort of teachers and those teachers take responsibility for monitoring and advising those students, coordinating interdisciplinary aspects of their learning, and building a community among diverse students. If even 10 or 15% of students opted out of one or more courses, these houses would cease to serve a meaningful function. It wouldn't be worth it for schools to try to build community if a proportion of kids are opting out.

Despite my concerns, this proposal could easily it could take root in the margins of schooling and move quickly to the mainstream. For rural schools that can't afford to offer a wide range of AP classes, I could easily imagine how market solutions could help meet the diverse needs of students in small schools (though I could also imagine how statewide online schools could meet the same needs). Once we take the first steps to seeing classes as commodities, it seems a short distance to transforming schools from Agora into shopping malls.

This is a space that should have a much more robust debate before school systems begin moving in this direction. I very much appreciate how straightforward the Fordham authors are in their convictions and policy recommendations. I'd love to hear more from them or other free market advocates about whether they find these concerns about the civic mission of schools valid or how they believe market structures can mitigate these concerns about eliminating the communal functions of schools.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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