Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Online Learning and the Waning of Teacher Unions

It’s hard to get your arms around—not just the number of bills being enacted but the breadth and depth of changes being made. If somebody had asked me in 2010 if I thought states would be doing away with teacher tenure or the Wisconsin union battle [would have happened], I wouldn’t have listed either as something I expected down the pipeline” in 2011.
That’s Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States in an Edweek piece on the momentum behind education reform in 12 states. Authorities attribute the surprising number of legislated and negotiated changes to an assortment of factors, including the publication of The Widget Effect, which showed that America fails to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers; the excitement generated by the federal competition Race To The Top; and a growing awareness that our kids underperform on international tests.

How about the economy? Certainly, that’s a factor too as states struggle to strike budgets without bankrupting taxpayers. Ed Muir of the American Federation of Teachers argues, in fact, that all the ed reform-related changes – tenure reform, restrictions on collective bargaining, LIFO (“last in, first out,” or deciding lay-offs solely on seniority) – are driven by money, not educationally-sound improvements. He says, “[t]hey’re trying to dress up disinvestment in the guise of shining reform.”

But why is improving schools and saving money mutually exclusive? Is it possible to spend less and still improve educational outcomes for kids? Or at least allocate funds differently?

For example, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal Terry Moe cites the growing influence of technology on delivering classroom instruction; he describes this “revolution” of online learning as an harbinger of the waning power of teacher unions:
As the cyber revolution comes to American education, it will bring about a massive and cost-saving substitution of technology for labor. That means far fewer teachers (and union members) per student. It also means teachers will be far less concentrated in geographic districts, as those who work online can be anywhere. It'll thus be far more difficult for unions to organize. There will also be much more diversity in educational offerings, and money and jobs will flow out of the (unionized) regular schools into new (nonunion) providers of online options.
The confluence of these forces—plus the shifting political tides among Democrats—will inexorably weaken the unions, sapping them of members, money and power. It will render them less and less able to block reform. The political doors will increasingly swing open to reforms that simply make good sense for children and for society.
Moe notes that American parents generally want their kids to go to school in a specific place with the appropriate social opportunities and predicts that schools of the future will be some sort of hybrid between brick-and-mortar and long-distance learning.

All this will mean, in fact, is that K-12 students will catch up with their instructors. This past December Bruce Baker of Rutgers and School Finance 101 examined which universities are teachers' top choices for earning masters degrees in education. According to his data, in 2009 the most popular schools in the U.S. were Walden University, University of Phoenix-Online Campus, and Grand Canyon University. All three are online universities. (Dr. Baker links the growth of online degree-granting programs to the perception of the "decline in the quality of the teacher workforce,"but that's another matter.)

Teachers are already voting with their feet (or laptops). Their students won't be far behind.

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