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The end of the classroom as we know it

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07/24/2005

The Huntsville Times was prompted by Bill Gates's good comments on education to interview others on the topic, and I was among them.

Note the person quoted at the end of the piece, who suggests that the solution to the public school problem is for the government to get the kids earlier (age 3) and teach them longer.

The story:

Virtual classroom is the next school

Sunday, July 24, 2005

By CHALLEN STEPHENS 

Times Staff Writer challens@htimes.com

Some see an end to public schools, others an evolution.

Bill Gates doesn't think our high schools work well. Before the nation's governors this year, Gates criticized high schools for alarming dropout rates, for offering more advanced courses to wealthier kids and for generally failing to prepare children to join the work force.

"America's high schools are obsolete," said the Microsoft co-founder, according to comments posted on his Web site. "By obsolete, I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded - though a case could be made for every one of those points.

"By obsolete, I mean that our high schools - even when they're working exactly as designed - cannot teach our kids what they need to know today."

With one of the world's most powerful men sounding the call for reform, the question quickly becomes: What comes next for public schools? Some folks answer: Nothing at all.

And that's because public schools have no future in this country, some people say. "I would say it is very clear that public education is failing," said Mark Thornton, an economics professor and fellow at the Von Mises Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Auburn.

Thornton echoes Gates' stark assessment of U.S. public schools: "What worked or what seemed to work is no longer working."

But unlike Gates, who worries that U.S. graduates aren't well trained for employment, Thornton lists different concerns. He says public education is failing because public schooling costs too much, that state and federal regulations have usurped local control, that public systems retain too many bureaucrats and the curriculum is rife with politically correct lessons such as environmentalism. 

And so, he foresees an end for the familiar institution. "One of the things that clearly is the future is home schooling," predicts Thornton, calling the costs a bargain.

But he sees a change coming here, too, one coupled with new technology: "I have a feeling that home schooling is going to evolve into something else." Students may be brought together for joint lessons with a parent or a "virtual teacher," said Thornton.

Bricks in the future? But maybe it won't be home-schooling. Maybe brick and mortar schools will survive even if the public school systems do not.

"First of all, I think schools are going to be defined by choice. More charter schools, more voucher-funded schools," said John Hill, director of research for the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. And perhaps these private schools will vie for top students, he suggested.

"I think part of that choice is going to be through recruitment and competitive bidding for placement by you and by the schools themselves," said Hill.

Hill said Alabama is already trailing the nation in offering vouchers to public school students. But he said if some public schools survive such competition, they too will become more specialized and possibly continue past 12th grade. And, he predicted, many of the buildings may give way to virtual schools, ones where students gather for lessons online.

No one disputes the looming changes sparked by technological advances. But those involved with public schools see computers simply improving what already exists.

"Probably a lot more technology in the classroom," said Doug Martinson Jr., a member of the Huntsville school board. He predicted public schools will exist 50 years from now, but with more students learning online.

Such distance learning will allow students to better tailor courses to their tastes, said Jennie Robinson, also a member of the Huntsville school board. But it may take time.

"The new generation is wired," said Robinson. "What I don't think we have is teachers who are ready to teach that way. I think the kids are ready."

Robinson also predicted a growth in charter schools and voucher programs, even if it takes 10 years for the Alabama Legislature to allow them.

Still, public schools will survive, she said. They will be smaller buildings, with better ventilation and no mold. They will function differently, perhaps with an "academy" model where students belong to separate groups within the school and those groups specialize in different subjects.

She also said school days will likely grow longer in poorer neighborhoods as the federal government continues to hammer on the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students.

To narrow that same gap, Superintendent Ann Roy Moore in Huntsville forecasts a different technique: "Instead of getting kids at 5, we'll get them at 3 years old. I think that will be a standard practice." She also predicts a longer school year because of expanding federal demands and testing targets.

But Moore forecasts the creation or more Web-based classrooms and online lessons may lead to more flexible hours, with students taking some classes at home or whenever and wherever they feel inclined. Many students may not stay in a school building all day.

Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, said the future of public schools in Alabama hinges on decisions made in the next few decades.

"I think the vast majority of people understand the value of educating all the children," said Hubbert, after a speech in Huntsville in May, pointing out private schools aren't prepared to recruit vocational students or disabled students. He predicted public education will remain a substantial piece of the Alabama landscape, providing the Legislature does not allow vouchers or charter schools.

"The future can be bright or it can be very dim," said Hubbert.

Mark Thornton is a Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and the book review editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He has authored seven books and is a frequent guest on national radio shows.

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