Public Education's Silver Bullet

School reformer Terry Moe argues that technology will finally accomplish what vouchers never could.


With the public-school documentary tearjerker Waiting for Superman stunning audiences from coast to coast, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty losing his re-election bid largely because of his support for education reform, and NBC devoting an entire week of prime-time coverage to the nation's ongoing K–12 crisis, many Americans are newly focused on the negative impact teachers unions are having on student performance. Terry M. Moe has been considering the problem for more than two decades now.

Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, has been one the most intrepid critics of the unions ever since his first book, Politics, Markets, and American Schools, came out in 1990. Co-authored with John Chubb, the book offered a devastating account of how unions thwart reform and trap children in a dysfunctional education system. Chubb and Moe made an emphatic early plea for school vouchers and parental choice. "We believe existing institutions cannot solve the problem because they are the problem," they wrote.

The book "rocked the education world," as the Chicago Tribune put it in 1990. The conservative Philanthropy Roundtable counted it among the eight most influential books of the time, along with Milton Friedman's Free to Choose and Charles Murray's Losing Ground. Its influence was partly due to Moe's extensive research on public bureaucracies. But it was also because of who Moe was not: a right-wing hack. The book was published by the center-left Brookings Institution, where he was a senior fellow at the time, making it hard for defenders of the status quo to discredit it as a conservative screed.

Two decades later, Moe and Chubb have taken up the cause of school reform again in Liberating Learning. The school choice movement has not lived up to its promise of wholesale reform, Liberating Learning laments, although it had a notable success in mainstreaming the cause of charter schools. Still, Moe optimistically argues that the education monopoly's days are numbered. He says the revolution in information technology, which has placed huge amounts of information at everyone's fingertips, will do to teachers unions what a meteor did to dinosaurs: wipe them out and make way for new life forms.

Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia interviewed Moe in his office at Stanford, where they discussed the radical new shape of 21st century schools, the "sheer power" of teachers unions, and how Barack Obama has delivered on his campaign promises of education reform.

reason: What do you think the classrooms of the future will look like?

Terry M. Moe: When people think about the schools of the future, they think about kids sitting in classrooms using computers or maybe in a computer lab doing online research. But some future schools will be virtual charters, meaning they will enroll children on a full-time basis from anywhere. The children can be at home; they can be at the library; they can be anywhere, and they will take a full-time curriculum from these schools. They don't have to physically be in one place.

Most kids will continue to go to a physical place called school. But these schools too will be hybrids. They will be partly traditional in the sense that there will be face-to-face interaction, but a lot of their learning will take place online. As a result, there will be many fewer teachers per student. Our entire education process will be far less labor-intensive.

Yet we will be able to accomplish more with the kids. Teachers in a classroom standing in front of 30 children can only do so much. They have to deliver a standardized curriculum. They cannot customize education to every child. Some kids get way behind; some kids are way ahead and bored. Other kids, in the middle, are staring out the window, unmotivated, needing personal attention. With online learning and technology in general, we can customize education to the individual child.

reason: You will get more personal attention and customization with fewer teachers? How?

Moe: In a labor-intensive industry, customizing education meant having one teacher for every child. That's impossible, so instead you have 30 children and one teacher. You can't customize. You have to standardize. But we have a method now that personalizes every child's education. They can move through at their own pace.

That's because there will essentially be a division of labor between teachers and computers, where computers are doing a lot of the teaching and teachers are participating, facilitating, but most of the load is being borne by computers. And kids can go through the material at their own pace. If they don't know something, the computer knows they don't know it. It can then immediately provide them with remedial help. They can work on things that they don't know until they do know them. Then they can move ahead. The computer can be measuring how well the kids are doing at every step along the way and make that data available to teachers in real time to see the student's progress. So there's just so much more relevant information about the student. This has never happened before. 

And teaching will become a much more differentiated profession than it is now. Not all teachers will be class teachers. A lot of the teachers will be online teachers who may, in fact, not deal with students. They might deal mainly with parents. Or with developing curricula. Or setting up management infrastructure. There may be other teachers whose job will require them to be at the school physically, monitoring kids or providing kids with tutoring, special help when they don't understand something about their computer or about the material or the assignment. And I think that they'll also be paid differently and evaluated very differently because their profession is going to be so different.

reason: This turns the conventional wisdom on its head, right? Education was supposed to one of those industries that was always going to be labor-intensive. Nobody thought that you could have fewer people and still customize education. 

Moe: That's true, and that's been the key to education's stagnation. Technology has been the key to progress and productivity across industries throughout history. But there are some industries, often associated with government, where it just hasn't been possible to introduce technology in a productive way, and education was one of those. There are other examples, like Broadway plays or symphony orchestras, where you really can't substitute technology, and costs have gone through the roof. But technology is going to transform education because now, for the first time in history, we can really substitute technology for labor.

reason: We've had many movements promising reform of K–12. The school choice movement made claims similar to ones that you make about technology. It said that once a few areas embrace vouchers, giving kids an exit option from the public school monopoly, the competition that will be triggered will improve education for all and this movement will become an unstoppable force for fundamental reform. But unions proved stronger than the choice movement. Why won't they prove stronger than technology?

Moe: There are 50 million kids in school, and maybe 100,000 are getting some kind of tax credit or a voucher. But technology is different. We're living in the midst of a revolution in information technology, and this is one of the most powerful forces ever to hit this planet from a standpoint of its impact on human society. 

This is what we've always been waiting for—for something as powerful, as revolutionary as this to come along. What people in the choice movement don't recognize is that technology is going to turn out to be the single biggest force for school choice. It is going to generate a vast array of new options for kids, and it is going to liberate kids from the traditional system that has trapped them for so many years.

It is one thing for unions to fight off the school choice movement or to weaken the accountability movement. It is another to hold back the revolution in information technology.

reason: But that doesn't mean they won't try. 

Moe: Absolutely, they will. That's because all this is really about, in the end, the substitution of technology for labor, and what the teachers unions want is for education to be as labor intensive as possible. So this is the ultimate threat to them and they're trying to stop it.

reason: What are some of the tactics they are using?

Moe: Unions use their power in state legislatures, especially, and in the courts to try to block technology. For instance, in Wisconsin, two school districts—Appleton and Northern Ozaukee—developed virtual charters that were attracting kids from all around Wisconsin. That was a great thing for those kids. Well, the unions didn't want these schools to grow. So they went to court and had these schools declared illegal because, under the laws, they were supposed to have a certain amount of seat time for funding, accredited teachers, all the usual things.

In Oregon, the Oregon Connections Academy was attracting kids from all over the state, so the unions got the state legislature to pass a law saying that any virtual school in Oregon had to enroll half of its students from its own district. They can't enroll from other districts. Well, that means that it's now very limited in size.

Unions are powerful, so this revolution is going to take a long time to happen. But in the end, they're going to lose.

reason: Why?

Moe: It takes something from the outside to shatter the status quo and to bring real change. If you have a power structure that's bottling everything up and blocking everything from the inside, then any sort of internally generated reform is going to be blocked. That's been the story of the last 30 years with the school choice movement. Accountability from within gets weakened. Dinosaurs, who had reigned on earth for 165 billion years and whom our public schools resemble, were perfectly adapted. And then an asteroid hit and changed the entire ecology of the earth. So you need a huge, powerful force from the outside, like an asteroid, to shake up K–12. 

reason: What kind of arguments are teachers unions making in order to stop cyber schools?

Moe: Every argument that you can think if. One: Charter schools and virtual charters siphon money away from the regular public school. Two: Virtual charters and online options involve an overreliance on parents. Three: Kids should be taught by certified teachers. Four: These schools shouldn't be getting public money because we can't verify that the kids are actually doing the work. Five: We need to have kids in a physical place so that we can see that the seat time requirements are actually being met. Six: There are too many opportunities for fraud. And on and on and on. Basically, they want people to think that the only kind of education that really works is face-to-face education in the classroom.

reason: One argument that can undercut all these arguments is superior student performance in the new schools. How do students in these schools perform?

Moe: Research has shown that online education is at least as effective as classroom education. There's a study, a meta-analysis, of some thousand individual research studies that's now posted on the National Center for Education Statistics website and available for anybody to read. It comes to the conclusion that online education is at least as effective. 

As for the other arguments about how learning has to be face-to-face, parents should play no role, certified teachers should be doing everything—all of those are self-serving arguments, and they're also very old-fashioned.

reason: You mentioned that the technological revolution is going to help the accountability movement. How? 

Moe: This revolution has given us the technological capacity to collect information about students' performance no matter where they are. We can get test score data on how kids do, say, at the beginning of the year and the end of the year. It doesn't matter if they change classrooms, if they change schools, if they move to some other part of the state. We can get data on those students. They can have an identifying number, and it can be kept in a giant data warehouse along with data on every other child in the state, and we can have background information on those kids, about their families and so on. 

We can also do the same thing for teachers. We can link up the teachers and the kids and know how well the kids in that teacher's class are doing; how much progress they've made from the beginning of the year to the end. We can correct it for the background characteristics of the kids. You can come up with very thorough measures of performance. It's an easy thing to do, and the unions are trying to stop it. And the reason is that they don't want teachers' performance to be measured. They don't want anyone's job to be threatened, so the data system is a threat to them.

reason: In some states, haven't they gotten laws passed banning the use of such information to evaluate teacher performance or base promotions on it? 

Moe: Yes. First, they said if you want to collect data on students, fine, but no data on teachers. But states are collecting data on teachers. So then they say, OK, you can't link the two data systems. They fought that very hard and won in many cases. If they lose that fight, then the fallback position is, you can link them but you can't use the data to evaluate anyone's performance or to pay anyone and certainly not to fire anyone. There are states that have such laws, which make absolutely no sense. The information's there, but you can't use it. 

reason: That loop hasn't been closed yet anywhere? 

Moe: Well, California used to have a data system in which there was no linkage, thanks to the unions. Then they lost on the linkage this year because of Race to the Top [a $4 billion-plus federal program designed to spur schools to reform themselves]. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan basically said it's going to be a negative for you if you have the data but can't use it. And so California changed its law to say that the data could in fact be used to evaluate teachers and pay teachers. [Since this interview was conducted, the Los Angeles Times publicly released value-added performance data on 6,000 local teachers, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.]

From the unions' standpoint, Race to the Top has been a big troublemaker because it propelled states to override some of the barriers that the unions have tried so hard to set up. It'll become an easy appeal to moderate legislators. They'll say, what, we can't collect data, we can't use data? Does that make sense? For instance, in New York state, unions passed a law that said that no district can use student test scores to evaluate a teacher for tenure, even as one factor among many. Even The New York Times wrote an editorial saying that was absurd.

reason: Inner-city minority parents have been more supportive of vouchers than white suburban parents whose schools don't have as big a problem. Is that the case with online schools?

Moe: Yes. Absolutely. Then there are parents of children who have dropped out of school who will maybe need a certain number of credits to graduate. Or kids who are gifted and bored in school. Or those who want to take A.P. physics or Mandarin when the school doesn't offer it because they live in rural areas. Or there are bullies in school, or they're very shy. There are all kinds of reasons why kids would really, really flourish in an online environment, so it's going to vary with the family.

reason: What can the government do to push the cause of technology in education?

Moe: The government can facilitate the revolution, or it can get in the way. I think it's important to have people in the government who have their heads in the right place and who know how to make this happen. What we need is to encourage a dynamic market, lots of firms with lots of smart people working on this. 

If the laws were such that it was much easier to set up charter schools and much easier to set up virtual charters, there would be many more firms involved in providing online education. Also, if regular public schools had strong financial incentives to contract out the course work to these firms, to let kids take A.P. physics or just regular algebra courses or whatever from online providers, that would help stimulate the market. 

For instance, Florida recently enacted new laws that give every child in Florida a legal right to take all of his or her courses online, and the districts have a legal obligation to provide them to meet that demand. So they either have to have their own online schools within the district or, since that's going to be inefficient for most of them, they have to contract it out, either to the Florida Virtual School [an online public school] or other schools.

The Obama administration's approach is to give more schools more flexibility. First kids are going to be tested, and then those outcomes are going to say something about how well the schools are doing. The schools that are doing OK are going to be given a lot of flexibility, and the schools that are doing poorly are going to face real consequences. The Obama administration is really serious about doing something about those schools.

reason: Can you give me an example what they have done? 

Moe: Reconstitution of the schools or having the school converted into a charter school. A good example is Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. The superintendent decided that since they couldn't get any fast action out of the union to reform the school, he was going to reconstitute it, and that meant firing everybody. Now they can hire back up to half of the staff, but they're going to bring in a new principal and a new staff and start over. That makes perfect sense.

The unions, of course, hate this, but Obama and Duncan both stood up and supported it publicly. I really have been surprised at how serious they are about pursuing change and reform and doing things that Democrats in the past had a very difficult time doing. Although Democrats, genuinely as human beings, want to make sure that disadvantaged kids are in good schools, they've literally been unable to do the right thing because unions have held them back. This is beginning to loosen and break down.

reason: On the other hand, this administration is also pumping money into the current system. It gave $100 billion in added funding to K–12 in the stimulus bill. You point out in your book that education spending has gone up 300 percent in real terms since the '60s. So is the administration's policy all that different from the Democratic orthodoxy?

Moe: I'm generally not in favor of pumping money into a failing system. I think that they did it now because we were in an economic crisis and there were going to be massive firings of teachers and this prevented that.

Putting that aside, I think that they could have used the budget crisis as an opportunity to force school districts to make very difficult choices about how to spend their dollars. They might have pushed schools toward more cost-effective ways of providing courses.

reason: Are you disappointed on that score with the administration?

Moe: No. I think things take time. Obviously they're just sort of getting going on this. And this was not a fully baked set of ideas when the stimulus package was going through. So the timing I think wasn't right, but we're going to have budget problems for a long time to come. In the coming years, I hope they will begin to connect the dots and use the budget crisis as a lever of change.

reason: In researching your book, did you find that Republican or Democratic states were better at embracing technology for K–12 reforms?

Moe: Well, definitely it's the states with weaker unions, so it tends to be Southern states, border states, because they're less constrained. That's really what it comes down to. 

reason: It doesn't matter which party is in power?

Moe: That's less important than the sheer power of the unions. Now, Florida, on the other hand, is the innovation leader in education, and the No. 1 key to their success was Jeb Bush, who is a policy wonk. He loves education. He knows what he wants to do. He has innovative ideas. And he had a big Republican majority in the House and the Senate that was able to get major reforms through. Florida has continued to innovate even after Jeb Bush moved on, so you've just got to hand it to Florida and the Republicans there—it really has been a Republican thing. I think had the Democrats been in power, these things would not have happened.

reason: Do you think that there will be a setback if Democrats gain ground in Florida?

Moe: Yes. Look what happened when the Democrats took power in Washington, D.C. They ended the D.C. voucher program. That program was terrific, and it's a travesty that they ended it. But from a political standpoint, it was entirely predictable because Democrats haven't supported vouchers from the beginning.

reason: So why is the administration supporting greater accountability for teachers, which the unions also oppose?

Moe: There's a rank ordering of union concerns. Vouchers are a litmus test, and if you support vouchers, then you are done. You can get away with talking about pay for performance but not with saying that vouchers are OK.

reason: If you were Obama's education advisor, what is the one thing you would tell him to do to advance the cause of technology and reform in education?

Moe: It's important for the administration to think big, to get away from incremental adjustments to No Child Left Behind, and to think 10, 20 years down the road at the kind of system we want to have. With technology, you can have schools that easily enroll kids from all across the country. We need a legal system that would facilitate a national system of technologically-based schools. Think of it in terms of barriers to trade that need to be knocked down for a common market in education. Geography should no longer be constraining. It was OK to have unique state laws if everything was determined by what happens in these little geographic areas called school districts. But now the national government needs to act to let kids get an education across state lines.

reason: Do you think we will see the kind of technological changes and reforms that you're talking about in our lifetimes?

Moe: Yes. We say in the book that it will take 20 or 30 years.