Please feel free to e-mail this article to a friend, a principal, a parent, a colleague, a teacher librarian, a college professor, a poet, a magician, a vendor, an artist, a juggler, a student, a news reporter or to anyone else you think might enjoy it.

 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 8|April|2000


 The New New
School Thing

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author

New is not necessarily better, but these days the new new thing usually sells well. (Note The New New Thing : A Silicon Valley Story by Michael Lewis) We have a new test of time.

  • Is it hip?
  • Is it fashionable?
  • Is it E-Commerce? E-Schooling?
  • Wired?
  • Digital?

Sometimes it seems as if the educational world is rocked by the revolutionary shifts taking place in the business world. Stones cast into corporate ponds create ripples and tidal waves that all too often crash on our educational shores.

"If it isn't online, just how good could it be?" is too often the question these days.

What ever happened to value?

The stock market is torn between the "old economy" and the "new economy." On March 28, 2000, U.S.A. Today announced that Cisco Systems "bypassed" Microsoft as the world's most valuable company - based on stock price - as Microsoft stock fell some 40 billion dollars in one day in anticipation of unfavorable court rulings. Cisco Systems was trading at 136 times "what the company was expected to earn." Its business? Providing an array of products to support the networking of the digital economy.

On Friday, April 14, 2000, the stock market fell the most points in history. Why? Investors are asking questions about value. They are nervous that this bubble will burst.

Investors are confused and undecided. One week the darlings of the new economy soar while market commentators project the demise of the old economy's aging blue chips - an economy based on outmoded notions such as profits, income, value and return on investment.

The following week, folks come to their senses, unload their technology stocks and rush back to the blue chips. But not for long. There are fantastic riches to be made backing the new companies, while the blue chips drag along offering nothing much more than respectable profits and dividends. They make for boring bets and require a long term perspective. At times it seems we have the tortoise and the hare racing for glory. And we all know how that race finished.

What we have is a bubble.

The bubble has become fashionable once again. Just as investors have speculated at a furious pace during previous boom times on promising ventures such as oil and gold, we are now seeing IPOs (Initial Public Offerings of stock) floated with amazing increases in value that are fueled by crowd behavior as investors rush to collect easy winnings. As long as everybody keeps buying, the prices soar well beyond any established measure of value. Finally, someone is forced to develop new yard sticks to explain what would otherwise make very little sense according to older measures.

The bubble demands the creation and publishing of new measures of value to sustain what is primarily a psychological phenomenon. While investment in unproven new companies that have not earned money is a form of gambling, investors must cloak the strategy in something more substantial sounding.

The bubble is closely associated with the Emperor's New Clothes. Those who study history will recall that periods of rampant speculation are usually followed by busts - periods of readjustment to reality.

Some people manage to time their investments so as to enjoy both the bubble and the bust. They invest early and cheaply on the way up, and then they sell short (betting on declining prices) on the way down. They make money from change whether it is good change or bad change.

Other people (usually a majority) may not have such a fine sense of timing and may end up losing dramatically, not only their own investments but the money they borrowed (at margin) to leverage their investments. These margin loans are usually backed with some kind of collateral like homes.

When financial bubbles burst, sometimes the consequences are felt in very human ways, as we all recall photographs of formerly rich men lined up at soup kitchens in the Great Depression. (Visit American memory Collection at the Library of Congress for photos.)

But what happens when educational bubbles burst?

Financial Bubbles of the Past

Name Time Period Ending/Results
The South Seas Bubble 1711-1720 "In Sept., 1720, the bubble burst. Banks failed when they could not collect loans on inflated stock, prices of stock fell, thousands were ruined (including many members of the government), and fraud in the South Sea Company was exposed." Source: Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000. Article at
The Mississippi Scheme 1717-1720 "Overexpansion of the company’s activities, the almost complete lack of any real assets in the colonial areas, and the haste with which Law proceeded soon brought an end to his scheme. A few speculators sold their shares in time to make huge profits, but most were ruined when the “Mississippi Bubble” burst in Oct., 1720." Source: Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000 Article at
Panic of 1819 (USA) 1819 Article at
Panic of 1837 (USA) 1837 Article at
California Gold Rush 1848-1849 Brought more than 40,000 prospectors to California within two years. Few miners struck it rich. See San Jose Mercury Web site.
Panic of 1857 (USA) 1857 Article at
Black Friday Sept. 24, 1869 When Jay Gould and James Fisk failed to corner the gold market, thousands were ruined. Source: Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000 Article at
Panic of 1893 (USA) 1893 Article at
The Klondike, Canada 1897–1898 Thousands risked terrible weather conditions and other hardships seeking gold. Decidedly mixed results. Source: Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000 Article at
Panic of 1907 (USA) 1907 Article at
The Great Depression 1929 "In the United States, at the depth (1932–33) of the depression, there were 16 million unemployed—about one third of the available labor force. The gross national product declined from the 1929 figure of $103,828,000,000 to $55,760,000,000 in 1933." Source: Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition. 2000 Article at

Educational Bubbles of the Past

Name Time Period Ending/Results
Open Classrooms Late 1960s to mid 1970s Many schools took down their walls to permit an open flow across classrooms. New schools were built without walls. After several years of mixed results, many schools put up new walls. The innovation failed to deliver on its promises for many students.
The New Math Late 1960s to mid 1970s Many schools adopted a highly conceptual approach to teaching math that caused considerable discomfort for many parents and achieved only mixed results. Despite major investment in the new approach, it was replaced with more traditional math when many students had trouble with basic math skills.
The New Social Studies Late 1960s to mid 1970s For almost a decade it was fashionable to teach social studies from an inquiry approach. Many historians and others became concerned that students were not picking up enough information. The pendulum swung back toward approaches with more commitment to cultural heritage.
Instructional TV Late 1960s to mid 1970s Suggested as a way to circumvent mediocre teaching, instructional TV promised sweeping improvement of classrooms. The medium proved cold and disappointing.
Madeline Hunter 1980s Described as a wonderful way to promote student performance, ITIP was promoted far and wide as a method for lesson planning and delivery. While still in use in many places, test results were mixed and the model has fallen out of the limelight.
Fill in your own . .
Fill in your own . .
Fill in your own . .

To what extent are schools vulnerable to this bubble phenomenon?

Bandwagons and Trainwrecks

We have seen 30 or more educational reform initiatives sweep through schools during the past three decades. Open classrooms. Instructional TV. Programmed learning. The principal as instructional leader. Cooperative Learning. Madeline Hunter's ITIP. LOGO. Effective schools.

Some of these have been exciting and enjoyable. Most have promised great change. Many have delivered less than they promised.

Traits of a Robust Bandwagon

  • Exorbitant fanfare and marketing efforts
  • Emphasis upon testimonials
  • Lack of credible data
  • Face validity
  • Light house appeal (and price)
  • Distortion of priorities and budgets

Sometimes it seems as if schools specialize in virtual change as fads create sparks, spinning wheels and the appearance of change without actually making much difference in daily practice. Walls come down. Walls reappear. We restructure, realign, reform and introduce Total Quality Management while life in Mrs. Jacob's classroom unfolds much as it did 30 years ago.

Changing schools is good for business. Walk through the exhibits of any major conference and take in the vast menu of options available to transform schools. The products, the promises and the promotions rise like a mountain range.

But take a look at the storage rooms and closets of many schools where well intended innovations and products often spend their final days. Can we afford to spend billions on unproven change strategies without a plan that emphasizes literacy and student results?

In recent times, networking schools has risen to the top of the list of initiatives, as schools have wired and cabled so that all classrooms can feast on the Internet. Unfortunately, the wiring of schools has proceeded without respecting what we have learned about making real change in schools. (see June, 1999 issue of From Now On, "Beware the Shallow Waters! The Dangers of Ignoring History and the Research on Change in Schools."

The Laptop Promise

If you buy a laptop for each student . . .

  • Better writing
  • Expanded knowledge
  • Increased achievement - higher scores
  • Improved skills for the modern workplace
  • Enhanced learning & teaching efficiency
  • Heightened motivation for all involved
  • Enriched preparation for global citizenry
  • Elevated problem-solving & decision-making
  • Intensified student-centered learning
  • Augmented teaming and cooperation

Note: Most teachers know that buying laptops for students without investing heavily in professional development and program development is unlikely to improve student performance, but the sales pitch rolls onward. (See September, 1998 issue of FNO, "The Laptop Fallacy."

Making Good Change Happen

(The following section first appeared as part of an article in the March, 2000 issue of eSchool News).

Basic Principles to Guide Change Efforts

1. Making good change requires a focus on a purpose likely to win broad acceptance.

Without the enthusiastic endorsement of the teachers in a building, not much change is likely to occur. To win this endorsement, the innovation being proposed must promise outcomes and benefits that match the daily realities, concerns and desires of the staff.

Teachers have seen bandwagons come and go. They are appropriately skeptical about untested, expensive changes that seem peripheral rather than central to their purpose. They want to know how this venture will improve student performance.

In the case of educational technologies, there is often a vacuum when it comes to educational purpose. We too often network because it is "the thing to do." Teachers usually look askance at such efforts.

2. Making good change demands the cultivation and engagement of the key stakeholders within the school community, especially the classroom teachers.

The decision to network a school is usually made by powerful figures outside the school. Failure to involve building staff in the development of the learning program, the design and placement of the network resources and a robust 3-4 year professional development program is courting disaster.

3. Making good change involves a strategic and balanced deployment of resources.

Schools optimize use by moving resources around to where they will do the most good. They also define resources broadly to provide a balance between the human and technical aspects of the initiative, allocating 25 per cent or more of their budget to professional development and a substantial salary budget to fund technical support in order to avoid the "Network Starvation" outlined in the December issue of eSchool News.

4. Making good change necessitates time away from the "daily press" of teaching.

Michael Fullan and others have shown that this "daily press is a major obstacle to making changes in classroom practice, as the drive to maintain forward progress often precludes an investment in sideways explorations and innovation. If districts expect to see broad-based adoption of new technologies, they must provide 30-60 hours yearly for teachers to meet, to learn and to invent classroom units.

5. Making good change deserves a prolonged and focused commitment over 3-5 years.

Schools must focus their efforts on just a few worthwhile projects and maintain that focus for several years until the innovation has taken root and become routine practice for most teachers. In all too many cases, we suffer from virtual change — the appearance of change without substance and staying power.

Back to April Contents

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie. Icons from Jay Boersma at (http://www.ECNet.Net/users/gas52r0/Jay/home.html)Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
FNO is applying for formal copyright registration for articles.

From Now On Index Page