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Old Ideas + New Tech = Futures of School Reform

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In 2011, Education Week hosted a blog called The Futures of School Reform, which brought together education reformers from across the political spectrum to discuss and debate the titled topic. With some polish and refinement, the contributors have recently released a new book, The Futures of School Reform, edited by Jal Mehta, Robert Schwartz, and Frederick Hess.

I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of essays, and it's a great introduction to emerging directions in education reform.

Two things struck me in my read through. The first was that technology was featured throughout the book, in ways both overt and subtle. Terry Moe and Paul Hill offer the clearest blueprint yet published for how online learning could supercharge market-based reforms in schooling. From a very different perspective, Liz City, Richard Elmore, and Doug Lynch argue that digital tools allow learning to be detached from schooling, and they envision a Dewey-inspired network of learners, tutors and mentors. Frederick Hess and Olivia Meeks explain how technology could allow the "unbundling" of teaching and schooling, allowing separate persons to deliver instruction, provide tutoring, assess assignments, create curriculum and so forth (much in the same way that medicine has shifted from general practitioners to teams of specialists with a wide range of responsibilities, from orderlies to surgeons). Even a chapter without explicit discussion of technology, like the chapter by Jal Mehta, Louis Gomez, and Anthony Bryk on networked improvement communities, draws upon the metaphors of a networked age.

In working with teachers and schools, I often say that you know you've reached a milestone in technology integration when you stop talking about it explicitly. Here, we have a book wholly infused with technology-based reform, and technology isn't in the title. Technology has come of age in system-level education reform.

The second thing that struck me, in part prompted by Mehta's synthesizing chapter at the end, is how old these ideas are. There is a chapter on addressing the effects of poverty with support systems enveloping schools, which is the same approach as both the Harlem Children's Zone and Jane Addams' innovations in the 19th century. The chapter on networked improvement communities evokes Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools. The chapter on market-based reforms is Milton Friedman's vouchers with online courses tacked on. The chapter on informal online learning networks is an updated revision of Ivan Illich's learning webs.

In many chapters of the book, I got the sense that the future of school reform consisted of well-worn ideas adorned with shiny new technology. Maybe that's good news, and the underlying ideas of future policy innovations are well-considered. Maybe we've even reached the moment where new technologies will finally allow Dewey's or Friedman's ideas to come to life. Maybe it's bad news, and we don't actually have new ideas for school reform.

There was one major exception, however, to my general sense of familiarity with the new directions in school reform. I think the most innovative chapter is by Hess and Meeks, with their ideas about unbundling schools and teaching. To my knowledge, that kind of radical re-imagining of teacher roles doesn't have a lot of prior thinking behind it. I'll devote another post to the topic shortly. In the meantime, think of this: what if your only job, 40 hours a week, was watching videos of classroom instruction and rating teachers using standardized rubrics? Are you getting excited for unbundling?!?

What I most appreciate about the collection in The Futures of School Reform is the serious effort to bring together thinkers with different backgrounds and different political dispositions to engage in the contested space of education reform. It's a book with true dialogue between divergent perspectives, drawing upon old ideas and new innovations to assemble a mosaic of different futures.

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


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