Book review: Moe and Chubb's Liberating Learning

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For those who believe school reform can't come fast enough, some are arguing it's already arrived.

In Liberating Learning, Terry Moe and John Chubb assert that technology has already begun to radically transform public schools, and without the political mandate that everyone presumed was necessary. "Technological seepage," as they term it, has already infiltrated schools in the form of super-duper tracking systems, virtual advanced classes and online dropout programs. These relatively small-scale innovations are but the first steps in the revolution, as predicted by Harvard business professor and technophile guru Clayton Christensen. Eventually, they argue, these pioneer technologies will pave the way for larger and more fundamental technology usage, such as data systems for evaluating teachers--which seem to be around the corner--and a huge increase in the number of cyber classrooms.

Though the book does discuss the transformation of the education technology market that Christensen promotes, the authors are much more focused on the ways in which the education reform movement will be altered as a result. In an intemperate anti-union diatribe that frankly is a turnoff, Moe and Chubb are reluctant to veer from their well trod paths. They devote way too many pages to an explanation of how teachers' unions have blocked education reform, only to have it be technology that has brought them down.

And down they mean, with a dramatic shift in the numbers of teachers anyone should need. They expect the deep use of technology in some niche classes--and the accordant displacement of the on-site teacher--to lead to growing public demand to have regular classes feature similar technology--and similarly displaced teachers. Also, easily accessible tracking data will galvanize parents to pressure policymakers for faster reform that targets failing teachers and schools. Under the influence of a better informed constituency, say Moe and Chubb, politicians won't be able to crouch in the union trenches.

The book assumes that all this technology will be good for student achievement and that's an assumption shared by many. It's hard to argue that as a tool technology won't alter the way kids get educated, but the evidence is not yet there that it will effectively displace large portions of the teacher labor pool. A recent meta-analysis from the Department of Education considered 99 studies on technology and learning, and though, overall, online instruction brought better results than face-to-face, all but five of the studies were at the post-secondary level. Even at that level of schooling, face-to-face mixed with technology proved to be most effective. The jury remains out on the K-12 classroom.