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America May Need Fewer Teachers In The Future, But It Will Probably Want More

Steven Pearlstein wrote an interesting column over the weekend about the implications of ideas like Kahn Academy that seek to replace a lot of classroom time with video-watching, and then redirect teacher time into direct tutoring. He thinks this will lead to there being fewer, but higher paid, teachers:

If education moves to a teaching model in which students learn through online tutorials, exercises and evaluations created by a handful of the best educators in the world, then how many teachers will we need preparing lesson plans and delivering lectures and grading quizzes and tests? Surely we’ll need some for one-on-one tutoring, or to run small group discussions, or teach things that can’t or shouldn’t be taught online. Despite assurances to the contrary, however, there’s likely to be fewer than we have now — fewer but better-paid with more interesting jobs — just as has happened in nearly every other industry that has gone through a similar transformation.

I kind of doubt that. It’s absolutely true that information technology means we’ll “need” fewer teachers, but I’m not sure how much need really has to do with it. The evidence seems to me to suggest that we want lots of face-to-face attention. Consider the trend over the past forty years:

Both private schools and public schools are responding to the fact that parents want to send kids to schools with small class sizes. At the same time, we clearly don’t “need” as many teachers as we currently have. Forget the internet, we got by with fewer in 1970. When I was losing weight, I worked with a personal trainer. I didn’t “need” one-on-one attention to instruct me into how to lift the weights properly. But it’s helpful to have someone standing there, paying attention, making sure you’re doing it right, encouraging/cajoling you to continue, etc. And at gyms and yoga studious all across America you see that people like to take exercise classes with a human leader rather than learn on YouTube. It seems to me that the increasing popularity of television programs that have a cooking instruction component has led to an increase in demand for live cooking classes, not a decline.

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Obviously public schools are government agencies. And people don’t like paying taxes. So it may well be the case that we end up choosing to use information technology in the way Pearlstein suggests. But there are large education-esque sectors of the economy that don’t have that publicly financed structure and consumer demand doesn’t seem to me to evolve in this particular way.