In the United States education has a special place in the national imagination. Years ago, schooling was viewed as a critical tool of democracy, functioning as both a social equalizer and a route to the American Dream. In more recent decades, education has enjoyed a less of exalted image, as the great social equalizer has been cast as the source of social, economic, and even moral decay in the United States. Schools have been characterized as bloated public bureaucracies populated by incompetent teachers allowing standardized test score averages to drop below those of our international competitors. Competition and individual achievement are stressed over community values and the common good.
In the “tough love” climate of the times, school policies lost whatever liberal bent they had, as funding from Washington was systematically reduced. With less federal money, local school districts were obliged to depend increasingly more on local property tax revenues––which vary wildly from region to region. This exacerbated the differences between impoverished and wealthy schools,as gaps widened between white and non-white schools, and between those that were technology rich and technology poor. Naming this condition one of “savage inequalities,” Jonathan Kozol asserted that progressive redistributive efforts had been “turned back a hundred years.”
Soon more profound changes occurred. As offspring of the baby boom generation began to enter the classroom in the 1990s, debates over education shifted from assignments of blame to prescriptions for improvement. With government deficits turning into occasional surpluses, a renewed sense of urgency returned to educational policy discussions. Suddenly everyone had ideas about how to fix schools by testing teachers, firing administrators, tinkering with admissions, offering vouchers, or promoting school choice. Joining the cacophony of voices were religious leaders, politicians, radio talk-show hosts, academics––in short, just about everyone except parents and students. If the debates yielded anything, they demonstrated how multidimensional a problem effective educational reform turned out to be
Further complicating these discussions was an overriding belief that “technology” could help somehow. With the meteoric growth of high tech companies and their contribution to the nation’s economic recovery, technology became the solution to every problem. . Significantly, these early proponents of technologically-mediated education saw themselves as progressive reformers, not unlike the current promoters of computerized learning.