Slowly but surely, “disruptive technology” is penetrating the nation’s ossified public education system. The effects may be liberating for students, but they would be devastating for teachers’ unions. In his extraordinary book, Special Interest, Stanford political scientist and Hoover Institution senior fellow Terry Moe describes a succession of union victories—for tenure, strike rights, and seniority protection; against accountability, charter schools, and vouchers for disadvantaged families. But Moe argues that those victories won’t last. Union power will be marginalized, in part, by online learning. Emerging technology-based education, Moe writes, is the “long-term trend . . . and the unions cannot stop it from happening.”

Economic imperatives are pushing education policymakers to accelerate this trend. Due to California’s dire fiscal situation, the University of California system is looking to online learning as a way to cut costs. In a report released late last year, UC’s “Commission on the Future” proposed “a pilot program to explore the quality and feasibility issues regarding fully online courses for UC degree credit.” While online classes and degrees are nothing new, UC’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, sensing a major upheaval in the works, decided to launch a preemptive strike. Its website, full of fighting words, challenges the claims of better and less expensive education online. The union’s real concern, of course, is a significant loss of membership: UC-AFT represents all non-tenured lecturers, as well as librarians, across the system’s 10 campuses. “[W]e are looking to . . . protect our members from potential adverse effects of UC’s rapid adoption of online instruction,” the website announced.

For the moment anyway, the union appears to have succeeded. UC officials and UC-AFT tentatively agreed to a new deal that includes a provision stipulating that no campus could institute a course or program resulting in a “change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without UC-AFT’s consent. In other words, the union is determined to keep all of its dues-paying members on the payroll whether they’re needed or not—and whether students can afford them or not. Tuition at the University of California this year is $12,182, not including room, board, and sundry campus fees. That’s more than triple the amount undergraduates paid ten years ago. The UC Regents are considering a plan that could double tuition again in the next five years. Saving money for California’s beleaguered parents and taxpayers with quality online classes is of no interest to UC-AFT. They fiercely protect their turf at any cost.

But the greater ramifications of digital learning—and the greater threat to union preeminence—will be seen at the K-12 level. Rocketship Education, a charter school network, is using a “hybrid” or “blended” model (a combination of computers and flesh-and-blood teachers) at five campuses in San Jose. Rocketship launched in 2007 and serves a predominantly low-income and minority student population. It plans to open 23 more campuses by 2017. Rocketship schools achieved an overall score of 868 on California’s academic performance index in 2010, placing the chain among the top-ten performers in Santa Clara County and the fastest improvers in the state.

The undeniable superstar of online learning is Salman Khan, a former Silicon Valley investment banker who got his start by posting a few tutorial math videos for his struggling cousins on YouTube. The videos quickly went viral and soon attracted the attention of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, who called Khan his “favorite teacher.” Khan Academy now offers more than 2,600 videos and serves more than 1 million students globally. Locally, Khan has gained a foothold in the Silicon Valley community of Los Altos, where schools have begun to use his online materials in their math programs. The students have shown noticeable progress in less than a year. Starting as a pilot program last year, Khan’s videos are now used in all Los Altos schools.

The blended-learning approach has attracted a great deal of interest from foundations and think tanks. Its appeal is obvious: students would potentially achieve more with the help of technology and fewer classroom teachers. No wonder the unions are terrified. The National Education Association proclaims on its website “an absolute prohibition against the granting of charters for the purpose of home-schooling, including online charter schools that seek home-schooling over the Internet.” Lance Izumi, an education policy analyst with the Pacific Research Institute, notes how the unions have tried to erect contractual barriers against technology: “The California Federation of Teachers, in model contract language, says: ‘No employee shall be displaced because of distance learning or other educational technology.’” But a superior education for far less money will eventually overwhelm and decimate the unions, and for some, that will come not a moment too soon: the late Steve Jobs, for one, insisted that teachers’ unions were the “worst thing that ever happened to education.”

Of course, any innovation requires a judicious dose of skepticism. But just as the horseshoe business became significantly less relevant with the advent of the automobile, education will undergo a similar transformation. It’s a fair bet that teachers’ unions ultimately will go the way of the eight-track cassette player, Betamax, and the floppy disk.


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