by Howard Stephenson


Time magazine published in December a cover story which focused on the 21 st Century Classroom. It described Rumplestilskin awakening today from a 100 year sleep. He was absolutely dazed and confused by the technology in our lives. That is, until the old fellow entered an American school room where he breathed a sigh of relief and say, “At least education has not changed.”

Some defenders of the status-quo might say he is wrong, because the blackboard has been replaced by a dry-erase whiteboard. Other than that, and an occasional computer used as an overpriced typewriter, most schools are pretty much the same as they were 100 years ago, with one teacher standing at the head of a class of 30 or so students seated in a cubicle approximately 50 feet by 50 feet. Like Pavlov’s dogs, principals ring bells in student’s ears every 50 minutes and are pleased when 95% of the students wind up in the right cubicle.

Teachers Compare Themselves with Lawyers and Accountants

Technology has literally taken over the professions with which teachers like to compare their own compensation packages – accountants and attorneys. You won’t find an accountant anywhere wearing a green visor or using a paper ledger sheet to do his work. Law offices are uniformly high tech facilities with computers improving research, tracking billable hours, handling paperless files, and producing legal briefs. The competitive marketplace in accounting and legal services ensures that the firm which does not modernize dies. Yet in our socialized non-competitive education system, children are stranded in 19 th century classrooms.

Lower Productivity in Public Education

The Utah Legislature is now looking at spending hundreds of millions of dollars on hardware, software, and training over the next few years to bring Utah classrooms into the 21 st century. Educators have not brought this request for technology in the classroom. In fact, legislators pushing the initiative are meeting resistance from many in the education community who are fighting instead for lower educational productivity through smaller class sizes. That’s right, they’re seeking LOWER output per teacher.

Public education is the only major sector of our economy I know of which consistently seeks to lower productivity.

Why the resistance? Why aren’t educators – the professionals in the classrooms – the ones demanding the technology which increases exponentially the amount of student learning achieved without increasing the number of teachers per student?

I think the answer lies in the nature of government bureaucracies which are immune from the natural incentives of the economic marketplace. If there was any risk of going out of business, they would behave differently by instituting productivity measures which enhance student outcomes and lower costs per outcome.

The Challenge of Non-Competitive Institutions

It is not the nature of non-competitive institutions to adopt measures to improve what they do. A perfect example of this is a bill I sponsored a few years ago to increase productivity of law enforcement entities in putting more criminals off the streets and releasing more wrongly convicted prisoners. A representative and I initiated and jointly sponsored the legislation to require taking DNA samples of all those incarcerated in Utah jails and prisons. This allowed active and cold case file DNA evidence to be matched with a greatly expanded DNA database. As a result, more crimes have been solved.

In asking myself why it was not the law enforcement community which brought this proposal I realize it is the same reason the education community is not bringing proposals to increase productivity in public education: They have no economic incentive to do so. Despite their allegiance to protecting the public and caring for children, until it hits them in the pocketbook, there is not sufficient incentive to take action.

Adam Smith was right about the power of individuals seeking their own self interest improving the lives of all mankind. When government insulates individuals from such self interest in their bureaucracies they hurt not only the workers, but the public they are supposed to serve.

This column was intended to describe some of the exciting technological advances in education – which I’ll share next week – but has become an argument for vouchers to improve the education output for Utah families and their children.