Bart Simpson and classmates, sitting in rows of desks facing the teacher and a blackboard filled with arithmetic problems, all have mobile devices. They are seemingly connected to servers on data farms watching and listening to things far removed from providing answers to the multiplication and division questions on the board. The cartoon’s peek into a future mirrors Steve Jobs’ announcement of Apple’s forthcoming iCloud. Google Docs, of course, has offered teachers similar access.
With iCloud, no more cabling wires strewn around classrooms and labs. No more rooms filled with desktop computers and students tethered to their machines. iPads and similar tablets will replace laptops. No more textbooks, notebooks, and transferring paperwork from one desktop to another. Just students with hand-held devices. Now take a look at this photo.
This is a snapshot of a sidewalk graveyard of cell phones, remote controls, calculators, and other devices in Seattle. A portrait of obsolescent technologies embedded in cement.
What do the cartoon and graveyard photo have to do with the dream of putting new technologies into schools and students learning more, faster, and better?
Two answers occur to me. The photo reminds me that public schools have never been able to keep up with the latest technologies in the work world. Consider the sorry record of vocational education in the industrial era of the late-19th century and now with the growth of the information-based economy.
In the 1940s, I took print shop, metal shop, and woodworking courses in junior high school using tools and machines that were so out of touch with the labor market as to be laughable yet persisted as required subjects. Fast forward to the 1960s when students took high school vocational courses on automobile maintenance and repair with obsolescent equipment. In the 1970s and 1980s, television and media courses outfitted with the most recent technology were out-of-date a few years later as new media technologies swept the industry. That story of public schools being always a few steps behind in equipping classrooms with the latest machines is both familiar and a reminder that tax-supported public schools cannot keep pace with the ever-changing work world. But should they?
Business and civic elites and bipartisan policymakers have answered “yes” unequivocally for the past three decades. They want graduates prepared for knowledge-based jobs in the 21st century just as earlier elites and policymakers wanted skilled graduates for industrial era jobs. Parents echo elites in wanting schools to be stepping stones to well-paying jobs. The primary purpose of schools has been to prepare students for the workplace for the past three decades. With the U.S. economic recovery stuttering, President Obama recently reasserted that purpose for high schools and community colleges:
“We launched Skills for America’s Future to bring together companies and community colleges around a simple idea: making it easier for workers to gain new skills will make America more competitive in the global economy….[New]partnerships … will be … opening doors to new jobs for workers, and helping employers find the trained people they need to compete against companies around the world.”
No longer are there separate vocational schools and curricula as in the 20th century. Now all elementary and secondary public schools are vocational in preparing students for college, the all-inclusive pathway to well-paying jobs.
Which brings me to Bart Simpson and my second observation based upon my knowledge of persistent school reform efforts over the past two centuries. In all of that time, one question has yet to be answered with a single voice: What are schools for?
For early 19th century public schools, the answer was to produce literate, law-abiding, and patriotic citizens out of a potpourri of rural and urban Americans. By the end of that century, the political purpose had shifted to an economic one of making skilled workers for an industrialized nation–but not forgetting the aim of citizen formation. By the late-20th century, however, the economic purpose of preparing skilled workers and providing individual choices for parents that would permit their sons and daughters to climb the social ladder of success had become primary. Occasionally, rhetorical bows to the political aim of preparing engaged and knowledgeable citizens would be heard in June at graduation ceremonies.
So why do Americans pay taxes for public schools? Do schools=jobs? Schools=social mobility? Schools=civic competence and engagement? Schools=thoughtful, inquiring, and independent thinkers? Schools=national and community values transmitted to next generation? The answer shifts repeatedly.
As new technologies sweep across schools in the years to come, the historical lesson of vocational education and obsolete machines needs to be kept in mind as surely as the troubling and mixed answers policy elites and Americans have given over the past century to the question: What is the central purpose of tax-supported public schools?
- Apple iCloud: what the analysts say (guardian.co.uk)