Sran: Technology Advances Are No Substitute for Investment in Schools

By Deep Sran

What will the opportunities and challenges be for our children and their nation in 2050? What can we do better today to ensure their life, liberty, and happiness when they reach middle age?

Making accurate predictions about political, scientific, and technological changes more than a few years into the future is virtually impossible. For example, in “Blade Runner,” one of my favorite movies, which was released in 1982 and set in Los Angeles in 2019, Harrison Ford invites Sean Young to meet for drinks. It rains all the time in LA in 2019, most people in the city no longer speak English, and Ford uses a landline video pay phone to make the call to Young. When I first saw the movie, I was amazed by this technology. But, the movie makers could not predict how quickly powerful computers would become small and mobile, and how interconnected these machines would be.

I mention “Blade Runner” to acknowledge the perils of prediction. Still, there are big and foreseeable changes coming, and it’s time to start planning for them. Here are just a few predictions about what could happen between now and 2050. The transhumanists think the “singularity” will have occurred, meaning humans and machines will be indistinguishable. Computer scientists and economists predict artificial intelligence could supplant most human workers (almost half of all workers in the U.S. in the next 20 years, by one estimate). Thus, most Americans may need to live off a Universal Basic Income—trying to fill their time and to find purpose. Climate scientists see marked changes in sea levels, weather patterns, and food production; the loss of natural habitats and biodiversity will likely continue. Political scientists warn against authoritarian lapses in democracies during times of national stress. The national debt will limit what the government can do in future economic crises if it continues to grow unchecked. I won’t even mention asteroids (hint: look up 2028).

Doom and gloom? No. I’m an optimist, as almost every student of history is. But I am concerned that political discussions and thinking today, at least at the national level, are mired in fruitless and vexing battles over what appear to be small, often unnecessary, distractions from what will really affect our children and grandchildren. It’s as if each party wants to win, even if it means young people and their Republic lose.

There is a failure of imagination in politics today. As a counterpoint to the short-term thinking that dominates political conversations today, I want to offer a plan to provide a promising future for all our children and grandchildren, and to make sure their nation approaches its 300th anniversary with liberty and justice for all. I want the federal government to adopt a long-term plan to substantially increase its annual investment in public education, to give individual human beings greater control over the conditions of their lives. This plan would have three parts: new urban and rural school construction, preschool for all children, and a long-term commitment to teacher quality and autonomy.

Deep Sran

As I’ve noted in prior columns, public education is primarily a function of the states, with the federal government contributing only a small portion of the national investment in education. However, the federal government can accomplish a great deal with its spending power to support research, create incentives, and reduce inequality. This is especially critical for students in rural and urban areas, where local and state governments cannot ensure that every American child gets a fair chance. In fact, it is critical for any child living in America, because—in a real and direct way—we’re all in this together. What happens to some of us happens to all of us.

You may ask: Why focus on buildings and people when technology points in the direction of virtual and augmented reality? Because as long as there are humans, we’ll need humans to teach them. Recent data on distance or virtual learning shows poor student outcomes. By contrast, having students and instructors in the same place can build knowledge and skills you cannot learn alone, which is one of many reasons I believe students are still going to go to school buildings to work with other people in 2050.

So, let’s start by making every school building in America a place of pride and safety for students, teachers, and parents. There has been a great deal of discussion recently about infrastructure and construction spending, but schools are not part of these plans and they must be. I submit that a significant portion of any national construction spending should be committed to building beautiful schools in areas where school facilities are obsolete or decaying. If we give every American student and teacher a school that is designed to inspire, we will show them how important they are, and will give them room to do great things. For far too long, we have given vulnerable students places that only reinforce our indifference about them and their communities. Beautiful learning spaces not only change the people on the inside, they can renew the communities around them. If we build schools that are bright spots in struggling communities, there will be reasons for parents and young people to stay and rebuild those communities.

The second investment would be in preschool for all students in need, for whom an early start is absolutely critical. The Perry Preschool Study is just one powerful basis to make this investment, showing that every dollar spent on preschool saves thirteen dollars of future government spending. Without an early investment, poor students too often fall behind in school and never catch up. We lose too many students before they have a chance to prepare for and apply to college.

Finally, the federal government can help poor rural and urban communities without undermining local control of public education by investing in teacher training and development. Using its spending power, the federal government can create incentives to attract highly qualified teachers where they are needed most. This could include, for example, creating incentives for states to make it easier for people with graduate degrees to teach in public schools (they can already teach in colleges). The federal government can fund research into improved educational practices, it can provide bonuses for teachers who teach in rural and urban schools, and it can fund teacher training and development programs for teachers across the nation. And, to keep experienced teachers motivated and committed to teaching, the federal government could encourage state boards of education to give teachers greater autonomy to make instructional decisions and to test new ideas. This would mean more decision making at the campus-level, rather than at the district-level.

This is a too-brief outline of a big plan to prepare every American child to think and work, and to be a thoughtful and active citizen, in a world that will change enormously during their lifetime. With planning and sustained public investment—balanced by cuts in less important programs—we can solve a broad spectrum of current social problems. And we can avoid foreseeable future problems, by preparing young Americans to be thinking people who can thrive and respond no matter what the future holds.

[Deep Sran, founder of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn, has been on a mission to improve formal education for two decades. Contact him at dsran@idealschools.org.]

One thought on “Sran: Technology Advances Are No Substitute for Investment in Schools

  • 2017-05-08 at 3:12 pm
    Permalink

    After last month’s column, I was expecting more nonsense from Mr. Sran. But, I mostly agree with what he says, except this column shows a complete ‘failure of imagination.’ The three tenets that are mentioned are current programs, and also planks of one, if not both parties.

    The federal government, in 2011, gave direct aid to public school construction to the tune of $2B (of the $41B nationwide). And that does not include the subsidization of school bonds, making most of the rest of the funds available and incredibly low interest rates.

    On preschool, Mr. Sran sites a study done in 2005 of a total of ~120 kids. There have been subsequent studies of many more children that show that preschool does not help all children – and might hurt some. In any case, neither party is against preschool when it helps. But that’s not creative at all.

    Of course both parties support a long-term commitment to teacher quality. Autonomy, however, is in the eye of the beholder. While that sounds great in principal, a class still has to teach the subject at hand. Dems have this vision of a Robin Williams-esque teacher floating into a classroom inspiring each kid to be all they can be. Repubs like me have had a great basketball coach for a teacher. He had the autonomy to talk to us about basketball after every single game. We didn’t learn anything about anything, and the tests proved it. If you have a bad teacher for a semester, that will set you back from that point on.

    I don’t know of a single politician who would say “Say No to Education.” Prioritization of the funds, and the additional taxes to levy is the real debate. There’s no imagination involved in saying “let’s do more of everything” unless you have some novel way to pay for it.

    Here’s a tiny bit of imagination:
    New school construction – turn schools into a year round, 8 am – 6 pm (or later) center for All Things Kids. Let public enterprises rent space coincident with the school, with complementary clubs/instruction/businesses. For example, in Elementary school, let day cares set up real space, not just the gym. In High School, let Jiffy Lube set up an Auto class. Hair Cuttery could set up a beauty school. What I’m suggesting first and foremost, is that kids go to one place in the am and are able to stay and be engaged until dinner, so that both parents can, if they want, keep working. And that the kids see how a (micro) community functions. And that the funds for the construction comes from the businesses. And that we accept the role of tradespeople as a first tier set of occupations, not the result of a failed education.

    Preschool – while preschool may have some benefits, the biggest loss in education is summer recess. That’s a thing that is long outlived the reasoning. The loss of knowledge, the increased vandalism and other crime all argue for more active supervision and more instruction. I care more for the future generations than I do for King’s Dominion.

    Teachers – Model the teacher profession after the medical one. Recognize the best teachers as the Doctors, and pay them well. Then we have a huge variety of Nurses. Allow for and promote actively a national volunteer corps, like the Peace Corps or Job Corps. A Teacher, then, may be the Teacher for 120 or more kids, allowing for this approach to be, perhaps, cost neutral. So, the day of a young child includes primary contact with an RN staff, allowing the Doctor (Teacher) to give general instruction and private tutoring as needed. Teach Cognitive Skills as coursework early on. Teach imagination. And socialization.
    Other odds and ends – don’t segregate the children into ‘gifted and talented’ ever. Teach classes at different rates, and allow for more flexibility to flow into and out of subject sections, but at the end of the day, the kids are in the same class. Tracking progress is something that technology will greatly help with.
    Construct or adopt some academic contest that rivals high school football.

    In any case, there’s more to ‘out of the box’ thinking than building a bigger box.

Leave a Reply