Preparing for an Uncertain Future: We Can't Predict the Future, but We Must Be Ready for It. How Is This Possible? Ms. Lefkowits and Ms. Miller Explain a Method That Helps Policy Makers and Educators to Identify the Forces and Trends Affecting Education Today and to Project How They Might Conceivably Play out in the Future

Article excerpt

IN 1898, Charles Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patents Office, is reported to have said, "Everything that can be invented, has been invented." In 1943, Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, predicted that there was a world market for "about five computers." And in 1977, Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Corp., authoritatively stated that "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." These men, all experts in their fields, based their statements on their past experiences and the realities of the time. Had they stopped to consider the myriad of factors that could be expected to affect the pace and scope of change in the future, their predictions would probably have been very different indeed.


But what are the global, demographic, economic, technological, political, and generational trends that will shape the world in which we and our children will live and work a decade or two from now? What are the chances that some combination of these trends will converge in ways that create a future that is fundamentally different from our past experiences and current realities? What might be the effect of these trends on America's education system? And how should leaders anticipate and prepare their organizations for a future shaped by the potential convergence of these trends?

As policy makers, district and school administrators, and other educators look to the future of education in their states and across the nation, these are just a few of the questions they will need to consider. But simply considering these questions is not enough. Policy makers and educators must also develop action plans that prepare them to respond to likely future scenarios.

A frank evaluation of our current system of schooling readily reveals its weaknesses when faced with the goal of bringing all students to proficiency on challenging standards. As states struggle with implementing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, questions about the very nature of schooling have emerged. Is the length of the school day adequate? Should public schooling begin at age 3 or younger? For some children or for all? Are our systems for preparing and developing teachers and principals sufficient to provide the numbers of high-quality school professionals we will need? And what is the most essential set of knowledge and skills students will need in order to thrive in the future?

We will not be able to know with certainty the answers to any of the preceding questions, but by asking, "What if?" in a disciplined way, we might better imagine the possibilities of tomorrow so that we can take actions today that will position us for success in the future.

Here we provide an overview of McREL's own application of this exercise and offer information on ways in which policy makers and educators might begin thinking about the future of education in their states as well as nationally. What we present here is based on McREL's more comprehensive work, The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2014, which is available online at


In 2003, McREL rarely considered the implications of an aging American work force and the associated stresses it could place on public and private resources for research and development in education. We had only a limited understanding of the impact of rapid advancements in information and digital technology and of the challenges inherent in the goal of leaving no child behind in our increasingly competitive global economy. Yet one thing was clear: the world was changing rapidly, and the 10 years from 2004 to 2014 just might be unlike any experienced in recent history.

So we began collecting data on work-force and student demographics, the costs of entitlement programs and health care for seniors, emerging technologies and their likely impact on schooling and learning, generational characteristics, economics, globalization, energy consumption, school choice, and the implementation of NCLB. …


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