Within 30 years, Americans will no longer equate public education with current bureaucratic and political structures. We will redefine it as any arrangement that teaches children and promotes equal opportunity.
Forces now at work will cause these changes. Technology will create new options for teaching and learning. Concerns about student motivation and safety will lead to smaller schools. Demands for choices, especially among African-American parents in big cities, will blur the distinction between private and public schools. Mayoral takeovers of big-city systems will lead to greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy. Educated people will have several routes into teaching and many adults will spend a few years in the profession.
In my work for Brookings Institution and the University of Washington, I try to help community leaders improve educational opportunities for poor and minority students. These people are committed to public education but will consider any workable option.
Such changes will be easier to make than most people imagine. People now in charge of the schools can be as stubborn as they like, and the changes will still come. More than half the people teaching today will be retired six years from now. Nearly half the schools in 2030 will have been founded since 2000, thanks to population growth and efforts to reduce average school size.
What school will mean
Children will have many ways to comply with compulsory attendance laws. Most will go to a school, and will spend their time learning in groups. Others will be at home with books and computers, and meet with students in libraries, for example. Peer interactions and safety will still matter.
Every child will have a computer and use it daily. Every child will have a teacher who supervises his or her work, sometimes face-to-face and sometimes through the computer.
No matter how much they use computers, children will also read books and write prose compositions. Then, as now, the people who make the greatest contributions will be those who read, understand arguments, and formulate and show evidence for their viewpoints and defend them.
Tomorrow's teachers will spend more time directing children to the computer-based lessons they need, and less time presenting material. Teachers will still be the first to know when a child has missed something, and the only ones who can promptly set a child back on the right path.
Schools will be smaller, with most having fewer than 300 students. Elementary schools will focus almost exclusively on reading and writing until children have mastered them. Every elementary teacher will be a reading or math teacher first and a specialist (social studies, science) second.
Every school will have a clearly defined way of teaching. Some schools will emphasize mastery of facts and skills, and others will emphasize exploration and discovery. Some will engage students through art, others through science or math, and others through connections with careers. Some will be virtual schools that run via computer connections and organize learning opportunities in libraries, research labs, museums, businesses, and performance halls. A few will specialize in helping immigrant children learn English and catch up academically.
Like commercial structures, school buildings will have movable walls and wiring that make them easy to adapt. Big older buildings will host several small schools. Expensive facilities like gymnasiums, theaters, and stadiums will be centralized and run by the city or county.
Options for parents
Parents will be able to move children out of schools where they are not learning, and use public funds for a new school.
Not all public schools will be run by the traditional school district. Any school that has a state license, teaches mandatory core subjects, and admits students regardless of race or income can accept public funds.
Nonprofit organizations, museums, libraries, software companies, and even churches willing to provide nonsectarian education, will be able to run publicly funded schools. Universities can run high schools. Government and foundations will provide extra money to make sure quality organizations provide schools in low-income neighborhoods. Government will publish student test scores, and it will cancel the licenses of low-performing schools that do not improve rapidly.
Today's shortage of new education-school graduates will be permanent. The teaching force will include many educated people who retired from other careers or whose children have left the nest.
Any college graduate of good character will be eligible to teach, but anyone who teaches more than three years must be sponsored by a master teacher. Colleges of education will lose their monopoly on teacher preparation. Schools will hire their teachers, and teachers will negotiate their salaries. Salaries will be high for "mainstay" teachers who anchor a school's academic program.
Skeptical? Look around.
Communities as diverse as Chicago and Federal Way, Wash., are trying to create new small schools, each focused on a specific method. Parents, especially African-American parents, are demanding choices.
Foundations are investing more in new institutions - for example, by creating school incubators to make it possible to replace failed schools. States and localities are working frantically to develop new sources of good teachers. Even the Supreme Court appears to be moving toward new rules that will allow parents to use public funds in church-run schools.
Necessity and new freedoms are unleashing innovation. Public systems are scrambling to improve their schools, especially in cities where private donors have offered to pay thousands of poor children's tuition in private schools. More than 1,000 charter schools are experimenting with new forms of public education and are learning to survive in an environment of choices. Illinois philanthropist Carl Ball is using charters to develop a new system of public schools. New American Schools helps localities adopt any of eight new school designs; they and new for-profit providers are also developing new training for teachers and principals.
Tomorrow's schools can, and most certainly will, be different and better.
*Paul T. Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of 'Reinventing Public Education' (University of Chicago Press).