Maturing Technology and Our Economic Destiny


The national debate--or rather argument--over education reform has covered a lot of ground since the National Commission on Excellence in Education blanketed America with six million copies of "A Nation at Risk" back in 1983. Local school systems have tried everything from back-to-basics to school uniforms, site-based management to smaller classes and outcome-based learning to corporal punishment, while installing computers in nearly every classroom and imposing tougher tests on students and teachers.

For 15 years, real teachers in real classrooms with real students introduced tens of thousands of innovations in schools throughout the country. Individual schools and entire districts have adopted, to one degree or another, essentially every significant reform proposal that has been put forward. What's more, some of those local experiments have produced striking improvements in student performance.

But the lessons learned from 15 years of experimental successes and failures have produced no significant systemwide changes in America's public schools and no significant improvement in the national achievement levels of America's 50 million public school pupils. Last June a plain-spoken Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan echoed the prophetic warning of "A Nation at Risk" when he told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress: "I am hard-pressed to see how we can maintain what is increasingly an intellectually based output system without a better education system."

America's inability to initiate even one meaningful nationwide education reform over the past 15 years is widely regarded as a singular and troubling failure of leadership. Indeed, now that long-forecast shortages of skilled labor finally have appeared in the marketplace, the debate over why educational reform has failed--and whose fault it is--has pushed the debate over school reform itself into the background. Among those concerned with fixing blame for the unimproved condition of our schools, the usual suspects typically include teachers' unions, religious conservatives, "educrats," the mass media, inept school boards and the Reagan-Bush administrations. In fact, it was the American public who thwarted public school reform over the past 15 years--and what's more, they were right do so!

Falling Wages, Rising Angst
From the mid-1970s on, the American public had a much less sanguine view of the future than the conventional establishment vision of a high-tech, high-wage 21st century in which most jobs would require a post-secondary degree. By the time "A Nation at Risk" was published, average wages in the United States had been falling for 10 years by nearly 11 percent. More ominously, the biennial Labor Department long-range labor-market forecast for 1983, released a couple of months after "A Nation at Risk," projected continued declines in middle- and upper-income jobs through 1995.

In 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast that the U.S. economy would create fewer than a half million high-tech jobs by 1995 but would add nearly 10 million low-pay, low-tech jobs, such as building custodians, retail sales clerks, cashiers, office clerks, secretaries, waiters and waitresses and health aides. The BLS projections, which proved to be remarkably accurate, also correctly foresaw the elimination of millions of middle-income blue-collar jobs as well.

By 1995, average wages in America had fallen 15.5 percent from 1973; male wages dropped 22 percent, while women's wages had declined just 7 percent. (Note: The gap between men's and women's wages shrank between 1973 and 1995, largely because the men lost so much ground, not because women's wages rose faster than men's.)

Not only did average wages fall during the 12 years following the release of "A Nation at Risk," but the marketplace demand for college graduates declined as well. By the end of the 1980s, the United States was producing a quarter-million surplus baccalaureates a year, and the overeducated/under-employed college graduate became a stock character in American popular humor. By the mid-1990s, nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds working full-time jobs in this country were earning less than a poverty wage.

As a consequence of their low incomes and dismal career prospects, young people in America began to delay leaving their parents' homes, and millions of sons and daughters who left home subsequently returned, often bringing spouses and children (a phenomenon that demographers call the "baby boomerang").

At the outset of the 1990s, national surveys showed that more than half of all Americans felt that our best days as a nation were behind us (that is, the 1950s and '60s). Pollster Lou Harris in 1993 found that only 25 percent of Americans believed their children would be more prosperous than they (the parents) had been. Small wonder that the dire prophecies of "A Nation at Risk" had fallen on deaf public ears.

Moreover, the decline in household income provoked a taxpayers' revolt that capped or reduced local revenues in large portions of the nation. This revolt effectively stemmed the flow of additional resources to the nation's schools at the very moment that the costly imperatives of new information technology, teacher training and swelling enrollments from the "Baby Boom Echo" became paramount.

In short, even if Americans had believed in the necessity of educational reform, they were in no position to pay for such an endeavor. Moreover, information technology was not yet mature enough during the 1980s and early '90s to provide educators with truly productive new tools. It is the maturing of our information technology upon which the successful transformation of our nation's economy and our schools ultimately will depend.

Lessons From History
Economic historians have chronicled a number of past technical revolutions (steam and electric power, minted money, the printing press, the internal combustion engine, etc.) and have found it characteristically takes two human generations--roughly 75 to 80 years--for a new technology to evolve from initial demonstration to marketplace generalization. What's more, it typically requires two-thirds of those years just for a new technology to become useful, reliable and cheap enough to consistently generate a positive return on investment. Only after a half-century of marketplace maturation does a new technology become powerful enough to produce truly revolutionary changes in a nation's economy and society.

An essential component of technologic maturation is the development of supporting infrastructures. For the steam engine, the enabling infrastructure was a network of inter-city railways. The critical infrastructure for electric power was a grid of power plants and transmission lines, and for the automobile, the infrastructure was a system of paved roads. For the computer, the infrastructure--or "info-structure"--is the Internet.

In the mid-1990s, just as our new info-structure was adding color and graphics (the World Wide Web) and the computer was celebrating its 50th birthday, U.S. productivity improvement rates doubled, and wages rose robustly without inflation for the first time in 20 years. We now have sustained this superlative performance for nearly five years. A meta-analysis of the U.S. economy released by the Federal Reserve in April 1999 concluded that America has, in fact, passed through a threshold, or "inflection point," in multifactor productivity arising from new, formulaic combinations of human, financial and technologic resources that consistently produce superior sustainable results.

An "Info-Mated" Society
Since the 1950s, the computerized future has been commonly described as being "cashless," "paperless" and even "workerless." The principal perceived benefits of information technology involved eliminating the encumbrances and drudgeries of industrial era life and work rather than conferring new benefits or creating new value of its own. Recently, however, as the Internet has permitted organizations to connect their decision makers with more timely and more accurate decision-relevant information, employers have begun to more fully appreciate the potential economic value to be added to every aspect of enterprise by "info-mation."

Just as the purpose of automation is to mechanically perform the simple, repetitive tasks required by physical production, the purpose of info-mation is to cybernetically perform the many repetitive tasks required of intellectual production, including data gathering, research, analysis, design, testing, evaluating and planning. And so, just as automated physical production required the development of tens of thousands of individual specialized industrial tools, such as materials handlers, metal-boring machines, pallet racks, polishers and sorters, info-mation now has set into motion the development of tens of thousands of individual, specialized information-handling tools. These tools range from single-purpose expert systems and statistical algorithms to process simulators and knowledge-management programs.

The proliferation of these information-handling tools will, over the next 10 years, enable employees at all levels of all operations to quickly master the requirements of new jobs or the use of new equipment. Computerized "work-day simulators" already are being used by employers to train new hires and screen new recruits in a growing number of fields (nursing, law enforcement, etc.). The computerized work-day simulators will be a commonplace component of Internet job markets, which will handle 75 percent of all U.S. hiring and recruitment within five years.

Meanwhile, starting now and extending over the next 20 years, a growing share of all workplace positions will be supported by employer-provided, conversationally endowed computer persona loaded with job-critical data, procedural knowledge, expert systems and decision simulators. These chatty, informated cyber associates, programmed to be amiable, resourceful and trustworthy, will enable any individual with a genuine mastery of standard industrial era K-12 curriculum to perform most middle-income jobs in post-industrial America.

If the historic model of techno-economic transformations accurately reflects our current moment in time, the United States has just entered the final phase--the constructive phase--of the Information Revolution. Ahead of us lie 20 years or more of rising productivity and prosperity, fueled by the rapid assimilation of matured information systems and services throughout every function of every private and public enterprise and into many aspects of community, social and family life. But this rosy scenario will come to pass only if we are able to equip all of our citizens with the capabilities and comprehensions to use information technology purposefully. It is now time to reform public education!

We have argued and pontificated as long as we dare. Every semester that passes from now on without statistically significant improvements in student achievement and motivation will drag down current economic performance and jeopardize our long-term prosperity.

Americans appear to understand this reality. Since 1996, education improvement has been the top U.S. voter priority, ahead of crime, the economy, drugs or taxes. Indeed, several national polls show that two-thirds of American voters want any budget surpluses spent on fixing Social Security, Medicare and education. Certainly the business community is genuinely behind improved educational achievement. If ever there were a moment to reform public education, this is it.

So what are we all waiting for? A plan of action? A common agenda? A national program or set of standards?

We've been waiting for that sort of top-down mandate for more than 10 years and it isn't going to happen. That's not the way this country was designed to work. The founding fathers set up the division of governmental authority in the Constitution so that the residual powers were reserved to the state and local governments to serve, in Thomas Jefferson's words, as "civic laboratories," to solve the problems with which progress would inevitably confront us. America is designed to be reinvented from the bottom up.

Civic Laboratories
As already observed, U.S. schools and educators have been working away in their local civic laboratories for more than a decade, testing new curriculum content, trying dramatically different class schedules, reorganizing school structures and experimenting with new instructional methods and technologies. The successful innovations have been reviewed and reassessed in the course of more than 350 national panels, commissions and committees on education since the mid-1980s. The summary conclusions from this nationwide search for the future of education have been reported in such synoptic publications as What Works in Education (published in 1998 by the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies) and A Handbook for Creating Smart Schools (published in 1996 by the National Center to Improve the Tools of Education at the University of Oregon).

Today, more than a decade of grassroots experimentation has shown that most reforms commonly promoted during the ‘80s and early ‘90s have little or no impact on student achievement. The good news is that we have a smorgasbord of consistently successful concrete innovations from which to choose, including project-based learning, team teaching, precision instruction, peer tutoring, integrated curriculum, computer simulations and Internet-based collaborations.

Now is the moment for the leaders of America's civic education laboratories to begin selecting from the marketplace of documented successes those specific proven innovations they believe will make a comfortable fit with their school districts’ teachers, staff members and individual school/community cultures. Administrators must become "edu-preneurial," first mobilizing in-house personnel and resources, then convincing parents and students, the business community and third-party funders that the innovations to which the district is committed have a proven capacity to achieve what all stakeholders now want: for every graduate of our public schools to be literate, numerate and articulate and to be able to apply those competencies to the day-to-day requirements of life and work in a high-tech future that all Americans, working together, are about to invent.

In particular, the edu-preneurial leader must make it clear from the outset that the purpose of each individual innovation--each pilot test or skills-training program--is to initiate and routinize superior tools and techniques for adoption districtwide, for all students, as rapidly as possible. Most program innovations in public schools during the last 15 years have been targeted at special student populations--learning disabled, gifted and talented, economically disadvantaged, etc. As a result, the Economic Policy Institute reports that less than 60 percent of school operating budgets are spent on regular education today, down from 80 percent in 1980. Genuine school reform must be a rising tide that lifts all students, not just those with mobilized parents.

Of course, a superintendent will draw fire for promoting innovations or changes based upon their proven superior performance rather than their political currency. But, in the contentious environment of this revolutionary moment in our history, superintendents are likely to be shot at--or sued--in any case. You might as well take the high ground and accept the flak for something worthwhile. To prosper in revolutionary times, you must be a successful revolutionary. By all accounts, we are in the middle of a genuine techno-economic revolution, the sort of watershed event about which historians typically write entire textbooks.

Fifty years from now, whole history chips will be titled "High-Noon for High-Tech in America," recounting how well, or how badly, the United States re-invented its principal institutions for the information age. For the re-invention of education, a crucial factor will be the ability of professional school leaders at the local level to wrest control of reform in their districts from the partisans and the ideologues and to take advantage of this crucial moment of technologic potency, returning prosperity and political opportunity.

For America's public schools, at long last, the future really is now.

David Pearce Snyder is principal partner of the Snyder Family Enterprise, 8628 Garfield Street, Bethesda, MD 20817. E-mail: snyderfam1@aol.com