Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Work at Home? School at Home?

Oh boy, the School Union Mafia ain't gonna like this!  But in a way, it is inevitable.

Two recent articles about schooling caught my eye - along with my property tax bill.   The latter has gone down in the last two years as housing values have tanked.  But with two new super-schools recently constructed in our County, and the Real Estate market on the rebound, I am not counting on low tax bills here, for long.   They will go up, as they did at my New York house, and I will likely have to sell this house, as well, and move on, yet again.

I work from home, and today that is not seen as an odd thing.  But when I opened my Office in 1994, it was viewed as something weird and unknown.   Back then, I had to have a brick-and-mortar office to be taken seriously.  Today, that has changed, and  many folks work from home, if their job involves typing into a computer all day long.

As I noted in another post, even jobs that don't seem like they could be "virtual" can be made so - if you use your imagination.  McDonald's has order takers for the drive-through window in Hawaii situated in Texas.  A disembodied voice on a speaker, it turns out, need not "be there" to get the work done.

But could other aspects of our lives be made virtual?  And should they be?   50 years ago, I would read science fiction stories about the future - where young people would attend school at home, watching classes on a virtual screen and reading books whose words marched across the page electronically.  It all seemed so fantastic then, today it appears to be a reality.

The first article I read is about Virtual Public Schools, which are being criticized, mostly by the teacher's unions, as being unreliable.  While there may be some marginal players in the field, the overall idea of virtual school should not be thrown out entirely.   It offers many advantages to students and schools.  But like any modern improvement, such as the automobile, there will be detractors, mostly from the buggy-whip-makers' guild.

To begin with, you might need smaller fleets of buses to push kids around.  This saves an enormous amount of money, but the bus drivers aren't going to like seeing their numbers reduced.   School construction could be delayed or eliminated, as fewer real classrooms are needed.  This is not to say that schools will disappear entirely, but rather, like many "virtual" activities, such as working-at-home, reduced to two to three days a week of "real" school time, which might be staggered among different students and schools.  The rest of the time could be spent at home, learning online through a high-speed Internet connection.

It also means that a student might have a wider variety of classes to choose from.  In the small schools I went to, the limited class sizes meant that if you took honors English and Math, you had to take honors French as well.   And if you wanted to take Auto Shop, then Calculus was out of the picture, as "vocational" studies were in a separate school, and students were "tracked" in special courses.

With virtual schooling, a student could take what courses he wants to - and excel where he can excel, as well as get a greater variety of experiences.  And specialized schools in the district could offer specialized courses, such as art and music (which are being cut from the curriculum in favor of huge teacher's salaries and retirement plans) as well as sports, which could be attended one or two days a week, for hours at a time, instead of in a 45-minute "period".   This could result in a more focused and richer experience for students and teachers.

What would be missing?   The social viper pit of High School - the training ground for poor normative cues.  Where kids learn that being "popular" is more important than getting an education, even if this means binge drinking, doing drugs, or getting pregnant.

As I noted before, to me, school is little more than training kids to get used to the idea of working eight hours a day, five days a week, and commuting to work.   And if this is true, then virtual schooling is a good idea - as chances are, the kids in school today won't be working 9-5 "jobs" in the future, but rather many of them will be working at virtual jobs or running their own businesses.  Why not train them for this, instead?

But change is threatening to most people.  Uncertainty makes people anxious.   They changed the entrance gate on our small island, and it has people in an uproar.  "The old gate was just fine!" they say.  And of course, the fact that several jobs were eliminated in favor of a computerized gate is part of the deal.  The loudest voices naysaying the new gate are the people who worked at the old one.

But whining about how "the old ways were best" really never solves the problem.  And the new gate works just fine - if you choose not to intentionally drive through it.

Uncertainty is what bugs people about Obamacare - no one quite knows what it means, so it is easy for the Republicans to paint it as a dangerous boogeyman, out to destroy their lives with "death panels" that exist only in Sarah Palin's head (and not much else exists there, either.  Was it a dream, or was she really the candidate for Vice President last time around?).

So we can expect a lot of loud hollering from the teacher's union about virtual schooling.    But it is a solution to a lot of our school problems.  Not a complete solution to every problem - nothing is, and picking it apart because it is not "perfect" is just being immature and baiting.  But with school budgets skyrocketing, student test scores plummeting, and property tax bills arriving with five digits in them, people have had enough.

We wax on about how great the horse-and-buggy days were, before the automobile.  But we forget about the mounds of horseshit and rotting carcasses of dead horses in the street.   Similarly, the hue and cry about "virtual schools" neglects to take into account that our current school system is anything but working fine.  I would be sympathetic to the teachers, if the teachers were doing a good job.  And teachers are often the first to tell you how awful things are in the classroom and in the school.  The few good ones are drowned out in a sea of mediocrity and crooked school management.  Ask a teacher - they will bend your ears for hours about how rotten it all is.  I have never met one who believes that our nation's schools are all hunky-dory.

So, don't believe the hogwash from union leaders.  Unions get paid on how many warm bodies they represent.  So any proposal that reduces the number of union members, well, they are against that.  And if you are in a union, remember that the union represents the union, not you.  And as a former Teamster, I speak from experience.

The second article I read was about online lesson plans, which some teachers are selling, pre-made, and how one teacher made over a million dollars doing so.  If you think about this, this is a natural outgrowth of the first phenomenon of virtual schooling.   100 years ago, if you wanted to hear music, you went to the local tavern or music venue, and heard local people play - often poorly, sometimes well.   There were far more musicians, as a percentage of the population than today - or at least people played more.

Today, we have a few "superstars" and a lot of bands covering their songs.   We can watch or listen to the same "star" online, on television, at a mega-concert venue, and of course, on the radio or iPod.  The mass-market has resulted in a few people making a whole lot of money at the very top.  And yes, this means that a lot of other musicians end up eking out a life doing covers of the stars at the local pub or whatever.  Lady Gag-Ga makes millions, the guy strumming guitar at the corner cafe makes some tip money.

And that points to where virtual schooling may lead - for at least some courses.  Superstar teachers may be in high demand, by thousands of schools and millions of students.   And such teachers may be able to command superstar salaries.   Well, at least one has already, just by writing lesson plans.

So what is the point of all this?  There is none, other than it is interesting to me how the future may pan out, and how things can change - and while change is scary, it may be for the better, in the long run.

And really, change is inevitable, most of the time.   The teachers unions will put up a good fight, as did the UAW at General Motors.  But eventually, push comes to shove, and you can't replace a steam shovel with 1,000 men with spoons.