Predicting the Future in Education: How Often Are We Dead Wrong?

In September of 1981, I was beginning seventh grade in the suburbs of Boston.  Our junior high school, catching on to the growing home computing revolution, had purchased approximately 20 Tandy Corporation model 3 TRS-80s which we referred to as “TRaSh 80s”.  Our class was enrolled in a half year long computing course that aimed to teach us to program using the BASIC computer programming language developed by Dartmouth Professors John Kemeny and John Kurtz in the 1960s.  The course was intended to familiarize us with the concepts of computer programming in an economy that saw more and more computer presence in everyday life via the home computers developed in the late 1970s.  However, our teacher introduced the “need” for us to learn programming in a singular manner.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many popular media sources played on fear of Japan’s perceived economic power as an industrial and technological powerhouse and corresponding perceptions of American decline to place our nation in an almost existential competition with our ally for economic security.

So our computer teacher told us that we needed to program because “in the future, everyone will need to know how to program computers,” and he layered it with a patriotic appeal that if we did not learn to program that Japan would “take over everything.”  I won’t claim a sophisticated understanding of the global economy and politics at the age of twelve, but I immediately questioned his assessment.  As I looked at my computer screen with a five line program on it, I spoke up and announced that I did not believe him.  With my classmates looking on, I said that in the future, there would be people who knew how to program computers and people who knew how to use computers just like how most tools that we used were designed and constructed by other people.  My teacher, to his credit, did not allow himself to be baited into that argument, and we continued the class as per his plan.  I did my assignments.  I learned IF-THEN statements and FOR-NEXT loops, and built tidy little programs that made my name scroll diagonally across the screen of our TRS-80s.  Then I went home, and I buried myself in “The Hobbit”.

I have not used a computer programming language another day after the class ended, although I have probably used a computer most days since beginning college in 1987.  Some of my classmates, fascinated by the ability to make a machine do what they told it to do, pursued computer science degrees and have, indeed, spent their working lives programming.  I, like most computer users between the late 1970s and today, have been content to use programs and applications designed by others.

Despite my lack of interest in patriotic programming, computers and commercially available internet access have exploded since I was in junior high school.  In 1984, only 8% of households had a home computer; today, that number is now 83.8%, spread across a mix of desktop and handheld devices, and 74.4% of households have internet access.  These numbers vary significantly by age, income level, education level, and race, but even 56% of households with less than a high school education own computers today.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 343,700 people worked as computer programmers in 2012, and a total of 3,980,000 work in “computer and mathematical occupations,” including researchers, web developers, systems analysts, programmers, support specialists, actuaries, and statisticians.  In the 1980s, computer and data processing grew by 181.9% in employment numbers, and while growth continues, computer and mathematical occupations represent roughly 2.7% of the labor force.

And even though the majority of American workers did not learn to program computers, Japan failed to “take over” as predicted by my computer teacher.  America, in possession of a computer workforce of trained specialists, saw Gross Domestic Product grow to 16.8 trillion dollars in 2013.  In 2013, 48.7% of all patents granted were issued to developers of U.S. origin.  US share of global “triadic patents” that indicate higher value inventions has remained constant since the turn of the century at between 27-30% of global patents.  In 1992, American citizens and permanent residents earned 28,013 doctorate degrees in all fields, and that number grew to 32,927 in 2012.

All of this, even though I was less than enthusiastic about learning BASIC in 1982.

Interestingly enough, today we are seeing a new push for wider access to computer programming through the “coding for all” movement.  I certainly will not prognosticate whether or not this is truer today than in 1981, but it is not hard to imagine it being reasonably true.  63.6% of households have some form of hand held computer, and their integration into our daily lives, even our hourly lives, is far greater than the home computing pioneers probably could have imagined outside of science fiction.  Computers masquerading as cell phones are integral to an astonishing number of people, and the number of mobile app developers worldwide may be as high as 2.3 million individuals.  It is hard to turn around today without a story about a person in high school seeing a need and developing an “app for that” whether it is for reasons personal or deadly serious.

So as I said, it is possible that “coding for all” is not simply an attempt to democratize the field of app development and raise overall awareness of the devices that we have deeply integrated into our lives and that we rely upon for more and more of our daily tasks.  It is possible that this will be an important indicator for how our economy will grow over the next decades, but it is also entirely possible that, like the predictions offered to me in 1981, that it will not.  App development may very easily be a part time hobby for many and a serious professional endeavor for a few, and while long term trends could easily impact how people buy and utilize programs in much the same way that the way they consume media and entertainment have been impacted in the digital age, that does not mean that most or even a significant plurality of us are going to be coding on a regular basis.  Nor does it mean that the fate of our economic future hangs on the percentage of our population that code daily.

And this ought to be a cautionary note for today’s education reformers who insist, absent much evidence beyond the rankings of American students of international examinations, that if we do not follow their path of education reform, we will fall into national economic ruin.  Today, the catchphrase for proponents of the Common Core State Standards is that our children must be “college and career ready,” such readiness to be defined as scoring “proficient” on a Common Core aligned examination designed and delivered by publishing and testing magnate Pearson.  They betray no doubt at all that this is a need, and they are entirely certain that “college and career readiness” in 2014 is captured by the CCSS and appropriately measured by the CCSS aligned examinations.  They further insist that the network of state standards that existed before CCSS were not sufficiently aimed at “college and career readiness” and thus were heading our nation’s students towards educational and economic doom.

A bit more humility really is in order.

A detailed examination of whether or not the CCSS are aimed at “college and career readiness” is not necessary here (although I would like an explanation from CCSS enthusiasts why being able to write an entry level college English course essay to David Coleman’s satisfaction is the sine qua non of college readiness).  What is necessary is questioning the ability of any group of individuals to make such sweeping pronouncements about what the nearly 60 million American children of school age need in order to be successful in life.  Predictions of the future of society often turn out to be dead wrong or hinge upon matters that are inherently unpredictable.  Futurists of the 1960s looked at technological development and predicted a world by the year 2000 virtually disease free and full of people who enjoyed a lifestyle typified by an excess of leisure.  The advent of home computing eventually led to today’s handheld mobile devices, but few in the late 1970s could have accurately predicted the ways in which computers have become integrated in our daily routines.  Observers of the economic landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a future where America’s position as an economic power was deeply threatened by a rising Japan, and while our economic landscape today looks vastly different than in the decades before 1980, we are certainly not subsumed under Japan or any other of the purported “Asian Tiger” economies.  Simply put: predicting the future and what it will need is hard.  So hard that the most prescient people are sometimes science fiction writers.

When it comes to school, this is complicated because, despite the heavy emphasis on economic needs, we purpose universal, compulsory education to goals that are not tied to economic ends.  A healthy democracy dedicated to goals of pluralism is embedded deeply in our educational system, and schools have been on the vanguard of our expanding enfranchisement since World War II; however, those are aims not readily placed on a standardized test.  The humanistic development of individual intellectual, social, and emotional potential is deeply embedded in the beliefs of many of our nation’s teachers, but again, it is not a purpose of school that is readily testable.  Regardless, if we are asking whether or not schools today are “meeting our needs” as a society, we ought to consider them alongside whether our children are “college and career ready” — and in the early grades, perhaps we ought to consider them far more than today’s reformers allow.

So do we know the future of education and what changes are truly necessary for our children over the next several decades?

If we are being honest, no, we don’t.  And we shouldn’t take very seriously those who think they do know.

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