The Tofflers on Education

In previous posts, I have recapitulated the thoughts of Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their book “Revolutionary Wealth” about transportation and energy policy. But nowhere is the “wave conflict” — the failure of industrial-wave institutions to keep pace with knowledge-wave institutions — more critical than the arena of education. The situation is dire. As the Tofflers write, “The United States will not maintain its spearhead role in the world wealth revolution, it will not hold onto global power and it will not reduce poverty without replacing — not merely reforming — it’s factory-focused education system.

The mass education system of the industrial revolution represented an advance over the educational system, such as it was, of the agricultural era when only a small percentage of children attended school. Mass education was organized to instil “industrial discipline” on young workers fresh off the farm, teaching them punctuality, frugality, sobriety, orderliness, hard work and inner discipline. Schools mirrored the industrial system as well, studying standardized subjects and marching cohorts of children in lockstep through 12 grades. In the words of Sir Ken Robinson, the keywords are linearity, conformity and standardisation.

Over time, a variety of vested interests grew around the educational establishment. First and foremost are the teacher unions. But public agencies also see compulsory education as a mechanism to keep “millions of high-testosterone teenagers off the streets, improving the public order and reducing crime and the costs of police and prison.” What exists today is “an unbreakable coalition that has preserved the factory-school model — a mass education system that fits neatly into the matrix of mass production, mass media, mass culture, mass sports, mass entertainment and mass politics.”

Needless to say, that system fails to deliver the education required for the knowledge economy, where creativity and innovation are at a premium. The gap is growing between what the schools produce and what the business community needs. The Tofflers quote Bill Gates as follows:

America’s high schools are obsolete. By obsolete, I don’t just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed, and under-funded. By obsolete, I mean that our high schools — even when they’re working exactly as designed — cannot teach our kids what they need to know today. … This isn’t an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system.

Millions of Americans agree. They are hiring tutors to supplement their childrens’ education. Many more are dropping out of the system entirely, turning to home schooling. The Tofflers don’t proffer a laundry list of of solutions. They simply suggest that a new coalition — of “angry parents, frustrated teachers, skill-hungry innovators, online educators, game designers and kids themselves” — will seek to replace the existing system of assembly-line education with new models, content and institutions.

What are the implications for Virginia? For one, Standards of Learning (SOLs) are a relic of assembly-line education. While they may ensure that students advance through their grades with a minimum command of the facts — a basic prerequisite for functioning in the world — there is no assurance that they are learning to think. The Standards of Quality (SOQs) are another relic of assembly-line education, defining educational “quality” by the inputs into the system of money, teachers and resources. The centralized, top-down bureaucracy is another assembly-line relic. Teachers sit at the bottom of a massive bureaucratic structure that absorbs resources, imposes uniformity and squelches experimentation and innovation.

On a more topical note, extending the K-12 educational model to pre-school, as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine proposes to do, is exactly the wrong thing to do. Kaine’s proposal would root out and destroy one of the last places where the assembly-line model does not prevail.

Private schools may not be the answer either. Private schools do have certain advantages: They are far less bureaucratic than public schools, and they have more freedom to experiment. They do a better job of tailoring the scholastic content of their classes to the abilities of their students. But they, too, are based upon an industrial model of standardized subjects and moving cohorts of students through grades. Further, as I have argued previously on this blog, their costs are out of control as they engage in the “country clubification” of their school grounds in order to attract the most desirable students and prestigious parents.

Frankly, I don’t know what a knowledge-wave educational institution should look like. I don’t purport to be an expert. However, I am willing to wager that the institutions of the future are more likely to arise from the ferment of the home-school movement than they are from the established educational system, public or private. The home school movement is innovating and maturing at an unbelievable rate. Indeed, the term “home” school no longer describes the phenomenon in which education is increasingly moving out of the “home,” in which parents are increasingly reaching out, cooperating with one another, and pooling resources and talents.

One last speculation: I predict that we may see more “cognitive development centers” like the “center for the mind” run by kSero Corporation here in Richmond. (Disclaimer: I serve on the kSero board of directors.) kSero recognizes that education and cognitive development take place in a social environment polluted by excessive exposure to electronic stimuli, atrocious nutrition, eratic sleeping patterns and overworked, stressed-out parents. Besides addressing the environmental causes of learning problems, kSero maps children’s cognitive skills and limitations and custom-designs mental exercises that will improve cognitive functions — from short-term memory to pattern recognition — that they need to advance.

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16 responses to “The Tofflers on Education”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross


    “Frankly, I don’t know what a knowledge-wave educational institution should look like.”

    “The United States will not maintain its spearhead role in the world wealth revolution,”

    umm…. have we checked out our education competition overseas to see what they are doing that is leaving us in the dust?

    I’m sorry but this is pablum. The Tofflers start with a premise that we are getting our clocks cleaned by the rest of the industrialized world .. then they’re on to the same discredited and UNPROVEN approaches – fostered by the same folks in the educational community who always were and continue to be OPPOSED to accountability and cost-effectivness in the first place.

    I’m surprised at you JB – I thought you were “Mr. Cost-effectiveness” and here you are stepping into the folks in the education community who want the dialogue to NOT be about accountability and cost effectiveness but thinly-veiled – “more money at any cost” mantras.

    The VERY FIRST thing I want to hear from the Educational Community is any APPROACH where they will agree to accountability metrics and cost effectiveness to be the criteria for judging success.

    These guys SLAM SOLS but what do they offer in it’s place?

    to wit: “there is no assurance that they are learning to think”

    … and what proposals follow to replace SOLs and SOQs (relics)? NADA!

    JB – what good does it do to produce people who have learned how to “think” but cannot compete for jobs in a world economy? What the Tofflers say .. no they don’t say it.. they leave it as a interpretation of the reader – that it should be obvious that if someone knows how to “think” they will best their competition.

    I hate to point this out – but “thinking” is not “knowledge” and when your Wall Street boss asks you to point out China on a map – your 150 IQ is worth SQUAT if the folks that educated you – omitted that “boring” infusion of knowledge in favor of a curriculum that taught you, instead, “how to think”.

    I’m disappointed. If the SOLs and SOQs are WRONG – then how about some specifics on the alternate path?

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar


    I can’t believe that you, of all people, would defend the SOQs — a machine for pumping more money into the educational system with no accountability whatsoever.

    As for SOLs, I agree that they do serve a positive purpose — ensuring that students have a minimum body of knowledge without which they can’t hope to function well in a knowledge-intensive economy. My problem isn’t with the idea of having a minimum body of knowledge, or with trying to develop ways to hold the system accountable but the way in which educational bureaucrats end up gaming the system and teachers end up teaching to the test. SOLs are a less-than-perfect effort to hold accountable a system that is otherwise accountable to no one.

    I like the idea of tuition vouchers that give parents more educational choices than they have now. That, at least, would help promote market accountability. The problem, as I noted, is that even private schools have their limitations.

    Above all, I would like to see a system that allows for more innovation than what we have now.

  3. Sounds like the Tofflers have read Gatto. Or maybe it was vice versa. I’m not sure who came first.

    The SOLs should be eliminated and replaced with nothing. The whole notion of SOLs is based on the belief that there is some body of knowledge that everybody needs to know. Everybody needs to know math up through maybe Algebra I / Geometry, and they should read and write well. All that could be easily taught to most kids by about age 12 in 4 hours or so a day. Given that foundation, kids can learn just about anything else they choose – emphasis on the “they choose” part.

    Everything beyond the 3 Rs is an elective. In my theoretical community of the future, public schools co-exist with a wide variety of community and privately sponsored alternatives up through about 8th grade. Beyond that, everything is an elective, and the local community resembles one big community college with kids shifting in and out of various educational options as needed. One year, it may look like homeschool, the next year they may go to class all day.

    A kid whose goal in life is to join his dad’s roofing business does not need to spend a year in Chem class calculating the quantity of moles in a solution. If he has the foundation in the 3 Rs, he’ll be able to learn chemistry at age 15 or 50, whenever it matters to him.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I support the rationale behind SOQs which is to emplace statewide minimum staffing and curriculum standards to assure that the poorer counties can still (in theory) provide minimum standard educations.

    I’m ALL for measure for better measuring the effectiveness of the SOQs.

    so I defend the SOQ CONCEPT as advocate accountability – and more of it rather than less.

    Let me point out a little known initiative by the Warner Administration –

    “Lifetime Initiative” a comprehensive school efficiency review program to ensure that Virginia’s education dollars are being spent wisely and effectively.

    The reason I mention this is that this process DOES address the efficiency of the SOQs.

    Here’s part of the Ex Sum:

    “In fiscal year 2002-03, Virginia spent almost $9.5 billion in state, federal, and local funds for elementary and secondary education – approximately $1,300 for every citizen in the Commonwealth. Governor Warner’s initiative and this pilot review of accountability and efficiency are aimed at maximizing the funding available for direct classroom

    You’ll note that the Tofflers don’t talk about any of this – and as both you and I KNOW – efficiency is what frees up administrative dollars to be used for the direct purpose of the funding… no matter what paths are chosen to execute the mission.

    With regard to the SOLs – they don’t lie. We have a very serious problem with attainment of minimal education achievement necessary to compete for 21st century jobs.

    We’re leaving behind fully 50% of kids of color and at economic disadvantages.

    This is a terrible indictment of a system that is stressing Creativity and Innovation – and turning its back on it’s primary mission.

    and that mission – is to turn out productive citizens – who are capable of supporting themselves and not be dependent on other taxpayers to survive.

    When we “pass” the 50% who go on to college while ignoring the 50% left behind… to end up barely able to make a living and care for their own kids …or worse dependent on others to support them – we need to take a hard look at our education system – and I for one do not suffer FOOLs who claim that the PROBLEM is a lack of creativity and innovation.

    I’m ALL FOR the AVAILABILITY of a QUALITY EDUCATION for those kids who ARE well schooled in the basics but I am totally and unalterably OPPOSED to making that availability a higher priority than getting those on the lower end of the spectrum – educated to minimal standards.

    If folks have gifted kids or even fortunate kids who are “ready” to move beyond the basics – GREAT – get them the tutoring and/or private education that can help them reach their full potential – but to make THAT the primary GOAL .. the FOCUS of our Public Schools at the expense of those kids who cannot even fend for themselves with regard to their own education – indeed their own future – and, in fact, the rest of us – is myopic and that’s the most polite word I can use to describe it.

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    COD — I suspect you’re right about the mix of educational institutions that may proliferate in the future. I also like your example of teaching chemistry. Drawing upon a business process analogy, you might call it “just in time education.” Teach the foundations for learning, as you said, and then study subjects and disciplines when you need to master them — at any point in life, age 15 or 50.

  6. E M Risse Avatar

    In The Shape of the Future we outline what an educational system should look like:

    A educational function for every organic component of human settlement patterns.

    We hear a lot of concern about the quality of schools but most of it translates into parents wanting schools to raise their children because, as RHTC’s, they do not have the time to do it.

    The most important factors to imporve educational institutions:

    Far more parential participation

    Much smaller classes

    Better tained and compensated teachers

    Embeding education in life, rather than providing a warehouse until children can get a job and start paying for their own over-consumption.

    How can this happen?

    Recognize that a sustainable future will cost a lot of resources and there must be a supportive environment for learning. We call that Balanced (Alpha) Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions and Urban Support Regions.


  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I think we’re missing some context on this.

    $1300 a year is coming out of your pocket, another $1300 out of your spouses, and another $1300 for each kid.
    I don’t know where you live but here in Spotsy – that works out to 10K per kid per year.

    And consider this – that works out to $250 a week for every kid – 20 to a classroom – $5000 a week.

    Now, we’re gonna pay that money for as long as we own a home – no matter whether we ever had kids or those kids are long gone and we are now living on a fixed income…and for some of us .. driven to choosing half-doses of pills so we can stay in our home. (no – not me).

    Now .. what exactly should we be expecting in return for that sum of money?

    Well.. I’m NOT in favor of taking away accountability, abandoning kids in bad circumstances and catering to kids of much better off parents by prioritizing a curriculum that emphasizes creativity and innovation.

    I’m simply not in favor of spending tax money to give kids of well off parents – gold plated educations – especially when we are perfectly content to stand by while kids in poorer circumstances get flushed.

    I don’t know about you but the reason I agree to this “tax” is because I want to see kids reach their full potential – no matter if their Dad is a lawyer or a roofer or their Dad is not around or their Dad can hardly read because HIS Dad could hardly read.

    Don’t you guys think that a kid of 15 who wants to be a roofer – deserves the education that he will need to do better even if you cannot yet see that future in his young eyes?

    Isn’t that what our tax money should be spent on?

  8. I agree. Our education system is broken and it needs to be overhauled.

    One thing NCLB and the SOL’s have pointed out is that many failing schools are made up of minority and lower income students. Schools made up of white rich kids located in the suburbs don’t have a problem with passing the tests. The schools where 60% (or more) of the students don’t speak English are where we have a problem.

    You can blame the teacher’s unions all day long but that doesn’t change the fact that our schools are divided upon socio-economic and racial lines. Try teaching English to a class made up of kids who don’t speak English.

    IMO, the first thing we need to do is get more bang for our buck. Schools should be open and class should be in session all year long. We have too much money invested in the infrastructure (including staff) to only have them open 180 days out of the year.

    More time in the classroom could, as crazy as it sounds, produce better results.

  9. //More time in the classroom could, as crazy as it sounds, produce better results.//

    More time doing the same stuff that currently leads to failure only creates more expensive failures. As it is, the vast majority of the school day is spent waiting. Waiting for class to start, waiting for the teacher to call on you, waiting for the rest of the class to finish the quiz, waiting in line for lunch, waiting waiting waiting. I doubt the average kid in school gets 20 minutes of actual teacher interaction per day.

    And for this we pay $10,000 per year per kid?

    The whole idea of herding 25 kids into a room with the expectation that they will all learn the same stuff at the same time in the same way is broken. More money and new angles on the same old thing will continue to produce the same old unacceptable results.

    We need to get the kids (particularly the older kids) out of the school buildings and into the world sooner rather than later. Being in a government owned building all day is not required for education. In fact, the results would indicate that it seems to be counter productive.

  10. “More time doing the same stuff that currently leads to failure only creates more expensive failures.”

    Fair enough….as I said the system is broken and it needs to be changed.

    “I doubt the average kid in school gets 20 minutes of actual teacher interaction per day.”

    If kids are currently in school 180 days out of the year and they get 20 minutes of teacher interaction per day that would equate to 3600 minutes/year. Well, what if they were in school 270 days out of the year? Wouldn’t that mean they would get 5400 minutes/year?

    All I am saying is that one part of that change should be keeping the schools open all year long. If you have other suggestions that would eliminate the “waiting, waiting, waiting”, I’d love to hear them.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    A couple of comments to a good discussion of important issues. SOQ. My understanding is that the Standards of Quality were designed to measure what level of staffing is required to operate public schools in order to avoid the lawsuits between “rich” and “poor” that have resulted in judges running school systems in many parts of the county. I’d rather deal with the educrats than some pumped-up federal judge any day.

    Standards of Learning. They still have lots of problems, but at least we are measuring outputs instead of just inputs. To Mark Warner’s credit, he did not dump them despite strong pressure from the education industry and the “it’s for the children” crowd. I’ve been involved in extensive review of FCPS’ budget for several years now. I’ve run across many people who only care about how much more money the schools can spend, regardless of results, because “it’s for the children.” Meanwhile, how much annually do we spend on remedial education in our colleges and universities? Bottom line on SOLs — keep them, but keep reforming them. They are work in progress.

    Another advantage of measuring outputs is that we can then fund what seems to be working and — God forbid — eliminate what doesn’t work. A number of years ago, FCPS instituted some extra support for “disadvantaged children,” read Hispanic kids. The costs were below $10 M annually for both programs, I seem to recall. The additional help seems to have improved these kids’ scores on standardized tests and, hopefully, reduced the dropout rate somewhat. Efforts such these seem to be money well-spent. The money would likely continue to be spent forever, but I feel better that something extra seems to have measurable payback for the kids and society in general.

    I’ve needed to dig into the checkbook twice for tutoring for my kids. The first time was for my son, after we discovered that he learned absolutely nothing about 3rd Grade math. (His teacher was incompetent.) Several months and thousands of dollars later, my son caught up to where he should have been. The second time was for my daughter who just seemed to need a bit more help with an advanced class. The little bit extra seemed to help. She understood the subject and got the grades she was capable of earning. I don’t resent the money spent on my daughter, but I am not happy to have needed to pay extra to teach my son what he should have been taught in third grade. Our public schools ought to deliver the basics.

    My biggest concerns with FCPS are its excessive administrative staff and its huge special education program that lacks measurable standards. I don’t oppose special education; indeed, I fully support giving children with additional needs, additional help. But FCPS has decided to go well beyond federal and state requirements for some of the most expensive programs (e.g., autism). But for many other special education and general education students, FCPS merely meets or barely exceeds minimum requirements. That’s not fair to my way of thinking. I’ve had discussions with many FCPS officials, asking what do we get for the additional money spent on these very expensive programs. Cutting through all of the educrat talk, FCPS leadership has no idea what spending the additional money will do. But they want to offer world-class services, but deny that people will move here for access to those services.

    What appears to have happened was that a significant number of parent wanted major increases in services and service levels for their children with severe disibilities. They were told that those requests were too expensive. In response, the parents asked to establish a charter school as permitted by Virginia law. The school board and education establishment is death on charter schools. Thus, to avoid the creation of a charter school, FCPS essentially agreed to implement most of the programs that it previously argued were too expensive and too speculative in result.

    Meanwhile, FCPS’ budget for special education (which does not include any programs for immigrant children per se) now cost costs more than either the entire middle school and entire high school programs. I think that is a serious problem and misallocation of resources. I suspect that some of the “milder” special education needs (learning disabled) could be addressed more cheaply by moving more resources from Special Education into the basic classroom, both in terms of slightly smaller class sizes in the primary grades and the addition of more reading teachers in the same grades. But that doesn’t build empires.

  12. //If kids are currently in school 180 days out of the year and they get 20 minutes of teacher interaction per day that would equate to 3600 minutes/year. Well, what if they were in school 270 days out of the year? Wouldn’t that mean they would get 5400 minutes/year?

    I’m not going to check your math, so I’ll just say yes 😉 However, my point is that the kids could be learning at least as much, and probably a whole lot more, in far *less* time each day if we got out of this send everybody to the same place to do the same thing mindset.

    Where junior learns math is not important. How he learns it is not important. Government buildings full of union employees are not required. Kids teach themselves to walk and talk by age 2. They develop diverse vocabularies with no professional instruction. Why is a certified professional needed for the comparatively easy task of arithmetic?

    Open up the education system. Eliminate mandatory attendance laws and eliminate all licensing requirements. Maybe Geico will want to improve employee retention by providing it’s own private school that is free to employee’s children. I don’t know how it’ll all pan out, but thousands of people creatively trying their own thing in VA is bound to produce better results than a room full of bureaucrats in Richmond.

    Anybody that can read and write well, and handle basic math up through Algebra or so has the basic skills needed to learn any other job skill they want. If primary schools are doing that much they are doing the job and meeting the basic need of a educated electorate to help run the country. Everything beyond that is an elective.

  13. “My biggest concerns with FCPS are its excessive administrative staff and its huge special education program”

    Amen, brother.

    Special Education in public schools has become a taxpayer funded daycare program. The “system” continuously spends a disproportionate amount of money on students that will never be part of the knowledge based economy. Meanwhile, we under fund other programs for students that will someday be required to work and make a living in the new knowledge based economy…’s crazy.

    Furthermore, it’s very difficult to speak out against such programs for fear of being labeled unsympathetic to students who have severe mental and physical disabilities……it’s no wonder the programs have become the sacred cows they currently are.

    COD –

    I agree with your assessment. I am all for a free market approach.

    My only point is that you have so much invested in public schools (they just spent $50+ million renovating my local high school) that it doesn’t make sense to not use them to their full capacity.

    It’s no different than building a major road and then only using it for 9 months out of the year.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I am for ALL approaches … INCLUDING the ones that apparently work in Europe and Japan.

    But no matter what methods are selected, we need to insure the use of performance metrics to measure progress/success and then feed that back to improve the system.

    We cannot accomplish that – when the folks who operate the system – oppose accountability and the use of performance measuring metrics.

    Their sole advocacy consists of killing the SOLS .. and replacing it with nothing… or to drop back to when everyone used a different test and there was no way to compare results.

    We have a problem is this country. I call it a GM “mindset” that prefers to “think” that they make great cars but Toyota wants to actually KNOW the quality of their cars.

    The same thing holds true for the Japanese education system – you know the folks who are cleaning our clocks in the world economy…. Those folks – they want to know if their education system is effective – our folks.. we not only seem to prefer to spend time arranging the deck chairs … we actually want to send folks down to remove the rudder…. Imagine that – not street hooligans.. but folks with credentials in the Education Community.

    Folks .. if we don’t have a commitment to measure performance – we’ve lost before we ever start and our Asian and European competitors are laughing all the way to the bank.

  15. Anonymous Avatar

    The discussion reminded me of a comment that my wife made to me a number of years ago. She thinks that one of the biggest impacts on education was the opening of real job opportuntities for women. When women’s choices were limited, many of the best and brightest chose teaching. As the artificial barriers cracked over time, fewer numbers of the top women have chosen teaching as a profession.

    Neither my wife nor I am suggesting that everyone in the teaching profession comes from the bottom of the barrel. There are many dedicated, bright women and men in our teaching corps. But one of the costs of opening jobs to women has been the loss of some of the best and brightest. Needless to say, the benefits to society from eliminating unfair career barriers greatly outweigh the costs, but, just as with everything, there are costs.

  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Happy New Year to BRers.! (So.. I’ll stop beating up on the Koefflers … and focus on the issue)

    Here is some data that illustrates why I think we need to be paying attention to metrics:

    Performance of NAEP Reporting Groups in Virginia 2005 (National Assessment of Educational Progress)

    4th Grade Reading
    % %
    Basic Proficient

    White 80 45
    Black 49 15
    Disadvantaged 52 16

    Basic – Partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.
    Proficient – Solid academic performance for each grade assessed.

    Notice that only 1/2 of the white group is “proficient” .. AND 20% are NOT… and that’s the BEST… it gets much worse for the other groups.

    20% of our kids do not graduate. That’s 20% without a high school education… that the rest of us will be taxed to provide for many of their basic needs – not the least of which is health care and retirement for even the ones who manage to obtain minimal employment.

    Here’s another important clue to the situation in Virginia:

    Number enrolled: 1,204,739
    Percent eligible for free/reduced lunch: 31.1% <---- almost 1/3 of Virginia kids are classified as in need... The other website I like for metrics .. is Standard and Poors “School Matters” –

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