Technology Advances Are No Substitute for Investment in Schools

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 2019Harrison 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.

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.


This article was published in Loudoun Now on May 5th, 2017.