We don’t need it but we will probably keep it for a long time. Like passenger rail roads or public broadcasting or the post office politics will keep public education a drain on the public purse. If there is any area that is ripe for reformation it is education. Using American figures because they are easier to get, the United States currently spends about one trillion dollars on education out of a 15.6 trillion dollar economy. I’m betting that three quarters of the money could easily be saved by doing education right.
To understand old fashioned education, compare mental strengthening to physical strengthening. Suppose you took 30 kids and told them that they should all be able to do: 10 push-ups after one month, 20 push-ups after two months and after three months thirty. It would be a very wasteful way to teach kids push-ups. No doubt some kids would be able to do thirty push-ups immediately some would improve faster and some would get there but much slower. The most efficient way to get the kids to do push-ups is to show them how to do one and then tell them to come and show you their thirty when they can do it. Then check on them from time to time and help the slow ones. Something analogous to this can be done with mental training just as it can be done with physical training.
New education is all done on computer. Now we can record lessons by the top teachers in the land. We can add graphics that make the understanding of the lesson much easier. We can watch it twice. Then we can do lessons that ensure that we understood the material. Computers give us the advantage of spaced repetition which is the sin qua non of learning. Some students will be able to progress very fast, some will take longer but everyone will be able to access the very best teachers. This process is well underway as seen by the plethora of on-line courses. Eventually someone is going to figure out that there is no need for a bricks and mortar school and they will dispense with them entirely. Indeed, why send the kid to college when it is so easy to bring the college to the kid.
Imagine an elementary school room based on the computer education. Parents who don’t home school can still send their children to a school but each kid can still learn at his or her own pace. Some would rocket ahead and some would lag behind but there would be no flunking therefore no over aged kids picking on their younger class-mates. There would be no social promoting either. Kids that lagged behind will just take longer to finish high school but everyone would finish. And everyone can finish. I think one of the worst ways to teach something is to give a 70 minute lecture and then assign homework. With a computer you can give a 5 minute lecture and then a problem set. Then another 5 minute lecture and another problem set and the lectures and problem sets can be repeated until the kid gets it.
The down side, it doesn’t work so well on the B.S. courses but I consider that an upside. Teachers like to make some comment about teaching kids how to think not what to think. I’ve never seen it. I’ve had lots of teachers try to teach me what to think but I have never had a teacher go over the list of logical fallacies or even say something like “have you ever thought that through to its logical conclusion?” Teachers are like most people, they think they are more important than they really are and they are willing to use the political process for their own selfish ends.
My prediction, we will continue to have brick and mortar schools long after they have outlived their usefulness for the same reason that we still have passenger trains and the post office and public television.