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Is the End Near for Teachers' Unions?

Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb made a big splash in 1990 with their book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. Claiming that the education reforms tried up to then had not worked, the book sounded a controversial call for a more aggressive application of the free-market philosophy in public education.

Now, in a book out this month, Moe and Chubb are pitching for revolution again. In Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education, the authors make the case that technology will transform both the nation's schools and the politics of schooling.

If you think that this idea sounds a lot like the "disruptive innovation" theory that Harvard

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professor Clayton Christensen espouses in his book Disrupting Class, you're only partly right. The new Moe and Chubb book takes Christensen's idea a step further by claiming that technology will upend both schools and school politics—the latter, chiefly by weakening the nation's teachers' unions.

Why? One reason is that technological innovations in distance learning make it possible for teachers to be dispersed across a much wider geographic region, according to Moe, a Stanford University political scientist. And that makes it tougher for unions to organize teachers.

Moe also says technological developments create competition for traditional schools by enabling a broader range of schooling options, from cyber charters to virtual schools, from which students can choose.

At the same time, states' increasingly sophisticated data systems are making it possible for schools and districts to determine which teachers are effective with students, and which aren't, and to try to pay them accordingly.

"For a variety of reasons, life is going to be much more difficult for unions," Moe says. "This is coming like a big tidal wave and no one can hold it back."

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