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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

A Forecast for Schools

Projections from a noted futurist and an educator provide direction for schools.

A Forecast for Schools - thumbnail
Credit: © Susie Fitzhugh
Education ranks high among the personal and political priorities of most people in the United States. Before considering our goals for education in the coming years, however, we must consider the environment in which schools will operate in the future.
For four decades, Forecasting International has conducted an ongoing study of the forces changing our world. As futurists, we collect all of our data and indicators from unclassified sources. Our computerized data bank, which we continually update, documents more than 3,500 events and trends. We use a variety of techniques, such as trend analysis, trend scanning, scenarios, stages of development, Delphi polls, historic parallels, matrices, and visioning to discern what the future holds in store.
During the past decade, our expectations have proven to be consistently accurate. For instance, we predicted that the economy of the developed world would be more vibrant than most commentators imagined—and so it has been. We forecasted many of the political and social problems that resulted from a changing population. Ninety-five percent of our projections have proven correct.
Futurist research can yield an understanding of societal and economic trends to help schools implement reforms that prepare students more effectively for the changing world. Here we discuss four of the many trends that will have enormous impact on all schools. For each trend, we reflect on some of the education reforms that can help forward-thinking schools respond positively.

Trend: Funding will become more limited

The economy of the developed world will continue to grow for at least the next three years. Many signs point to the continued recovery of the U.S. economy, including increases in the gross domestic product, consumer spending, real estate sales, and productivity.
  • Virtually all federal mandates in the foreseeable future will be unfunded. The underfunding of the No Child Left Behind Act demonstrates that the U.S. federal government will fail to supply sufficient resources to support even highly touted reforms. Additional unfunded mandates will also affect special education, an area in which change will continue to be regulated with insufficient supporting funds.
  • Local taxpayers will have to absorb still more of the education budget as contributions from the state and federal levels continue to decline.
  • Current school budget cuts are likely to be followed by further reductions. Already, the cash-strapped public education system is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain even its most important programs.
  • The recent extension of performance deadlines under the No Child Left Behind program is only the first of many. Improved performance and smaller budgets are mutually exclusive.
  • The pressures on state and local education budgets will make it extremely difficult to build and staff new schools.

How Schools Can Respond

The need to make more creative use of financial resources, combined with the availability of new technologies, makes this an optimal time to get rid of the “edifice complex” and shift as much teaching as possible to the Internet. Granted, different schools have differing available funds and allocate them in widely different ways, making it impossible to generalize. Even so, all schools and school systems can explore and expand on the use of available technology.
For example, students can “attend” some classes over the Internet and gather in a classroom only periodically for social interaction and other functions enhanced by meeting face-to-face. This innovation would dramatically reduce school costs while maintaining high educational performance. Most building budgets would be better invested in computer networks and hardware for students who do not already have their own computers than in new basal texts, which are often outdated by the time they are published.
The best schools are wired learning centers that can tap into information anywhere in the world. Teachers are becoming mentors and catalysts whose job is not to lecture but rather to help students learn to collect, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information. For computer-literate teachers, much of this can be accomplished online.
Some schools (for example, in Fairfax County, Virginia) are piloting online summer school programs. In Blacksburg, Virginia, the public schools and Virginia Polytechnic Institute have been fully wired for almost 15 years, thereby enabling the town and university to integrate programs to make education and training available online (Cetron, Soriano, & Gayle, 1985).
The state of Maine has shown its commitment to educating students for the 21st century by issuing all middle school students laptop computers. The $37.2 million program, begun in 2002, has expanded this year in spite of the state's $1 billion budget deficit. As Seymour Papert, an expert in artificial intelligence, commented,As long as pencil and paper was the only medium, schooling was a static thing. . . . By giving all kids access to a computer, Maine is creating conditions for the development of a radically different way of thinking about education. (cited in Kleiner, 2003, p. 66)
Measures as simple as supporting classrooms from Web sites maintained by individual instructors or providing students with an online forum for writing revision provide excellent starting points for schools just beginning to explore the uses of technology for delivering instruction in the 21st century.

Trend: The student population will grow and continue to become more diverse

Population projections show that the number of school-age children will be significantly higher than planners anticipated for much of the next two decades (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). Between 1997 and 2007, at least 6,000 new schools and 190,000 new teachers will be needed in the United States (Jackson, 2002). This number could grow unexpectedly, just as the population is doing.
At the same time, the demographic makeup of the population is changing. Current minority groups will account for an ever larger part of the U.S. population.
  • Today, about 65 percent of school-age children are non-Hispanic whites. That figure is expected to drop to 56 percent by 2020 and to under 50 percent by 2040.
  • Between 1999 and 2010, Hispanics will account for 43 percent of U.S. population growth. This Hispanic school-age population is predicted to increase by approximately 60 percent in the next 20 years. By 2025, nearly one in four school-age children will be Hispanic.
  • The school-age Asian and Pacific Islander population is expected to increase from 4 percent in 2000 to 6.6 percent in 2025. African American and Native American school-age populations are predicted to remain relatively stable.
The growing racial and ethnic minority population will present continuing challenges for education. Schools will need to find new strategies to overcome longstanding achievement gaps and educate all students, including those in groups that have traditionally been considered difficult to educate. A continuing shortage of qualified teachers—particularly in special education and teaching English to speakers of other languages—will complicate this challenge.

How Schools Can Respond

To meet this challenge, educators need to focus on finding creative strategies to serve the learning needs of all students. Their task may be even more difficult because of the recent movement to reduce or eliminate tracking. Simply creating heterogeneous learning groups does not address the needs of individual learners. “One for all, all for one” learning and “teaching to the middle” create the risk that the fastest learners will be perpetually bored, while the slowest will continue to struggle. When teachers deliver instruction to one group, the other is inevitably lost.
Individualizing instruction is more sophisticated, more effective, and, with proper training and implementation, no more labor-intensive. All students learn the same material, but students arrive at the same goal by taking different routes. Student-centered instruction rooted in student choice and collaborative learning provides intrinsic motivation to learn and prepares students for the real-world application of their learning.
Elementary education allows for individualized instruction in ways that higher education rarely does. All content areas are taught by one teacher—ideally, in an interdisciplinary fashion—and the school day can be scheduled to best meet individual students' needs. With regular diagnostic assessments of student skills, teachers can provide instruction in fluid ability groups that they can adjust frequently during the grading period, semester, or school year. For example, teachers can individualize spelling instruction by noting student errors and then placing students in small groups on the basis of the specific needs that students' errors indicate.
Teachers can individualize mathematics instruction on the basis of aptitudes and learning styles. Students who work sequentially, employ linear reasoning, or grasp concepts in terms of numerals and symbols (through pencil-and-paper tasks) can work separately from those who employ more abstract, nonlinear, and kinesthetic reasoning and who tend to solve problems through concrete operations (manipulatives). Education centers in the classroom can provide both enrichment and remediation, with portions of the school day allocated to self-directed exploration of curricular content.
At the secondary level, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program does an exemplary job of offering students a voice in their own learning by embedding choice, collaboration, and performance assessment into each stage of a student's development. IB students spend 9th and 10th grade learning to become their own advocates, developing an appetite for intellectual inquiry and exchange and exploring the academic world in an interdisciplinary and global capacity. Students in 10th and 11th grade explore epistemology, ethics, issues in current affairs, and academic topics in ways that are alternately self-reflective and outward-focused while building knowledge and skills liberal enough to provide context and specific enough to provide ownership in their learning.
Educators at every age level can design alternative assessments (to objective or subjective testing instruments) that allow students to choose how to display their knowledge and skills in a highly personalized manner. Teachers often remark that they gain more insight into student learning from projects such as these than from traditional papers and tests. The best alternative assessments allow students to choose from among a variety of intelligences. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (2000) identifies nine ways in which we all make meaning and communicate our understanding to others: interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, spatial, existentialist, and naturalist. Students can combine approaches to exhibit their evolving understanding of a particular subject.
Individualizing education also means providing the full range of resources to every student who needs the help of high-intensity summer classes, tutoring, remedial classes after hours, and English as a second language. This ideal has yet to be realized, but it remains an attainable goal during the early decades of the 21st century (Cetron & Cetron, 1999).

Trend: Technology will continue to transform the workplace

Advances in technology, especially computers and the Internet, are speeding up the pace of change. Half of the cutting-edge science and technology content that college students learn in their freshman year will be obsolete, revised, or taken for granted by their senior year. Roughly 80 percent of all scientists, engineers, and physicians who have ever lived are alive today—and are actively trading ideas in real time on the Internet (Cetron & Davies, 2003).
Technology will transform the future workplace of today's students. For a good career in almost any field, computer competence is becoming mandatory. Even entry-level jobs and formerly unskilled positions require a growing level of education.
In all fields, new technologies are replacing what was recently cutting-edge at an ever faster rate. New technologies often require more education and training. They also provide endless new opportunities to create new businesses and jobs. Corporations already recognize this need and have begun to provide time and compensation for training, considering it an investment rather than an expense.

How Schools Can Respond

The demand for computer and Internet training—especially at the middle school and high school levels—can only grow. Teachers who are still uncomfortable with computers and related technology can no longer do their jobs effectively. Even those teachers with a higher comfort level need ongoing training to upgrade their skills as technology rapidly advances. Schools need to provide time and money to enable faculties to upgrade their skills and knowledge. They should consider this training as an investment that helps recruit and retain the best educators.
Fortunately, the current generation of beginning teachers can cope with computers and related hardware with an ease and comfort level that their veteran colleagues can only envy. Their familiarity with technology should help reduce the problems of high-tech education in the years to come.
The transformation of the workplace also calls for a new kind of high-tech vocational education that can prepare tomorrow's medical technicians, computer programmers, and other technology specialists. Unfortunately, only about 30 percent of today's high school graduates go on to college (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). Among the young people who enter the work force directly after high school graduation or who drop out before graduating, few have the skills to earn a good living in a high-tech economy.
The Fairfax County, Virginia, Academy program is a model for schools that wish to graduate students who are qualified to enter or apprentice in the specialized work force and maintain the infrastructure that business and service industries require. Through this program, students attend academic classes for part of the school day and travel to other county schools that specialize in a broad range of professional fields (computer science, communications, auto technology) to gain professional skills and often certification (Cetron & Cetron, 1999).
Unfortunately, in any shape or form, high-tech vocational education is another crucial educational resource that today's draconian budget cuts block or endanger.
Schools may need to form partnerships with industry leaders to establish high-tech vocational education programs at the local level—programs that would train students to meet these companies' professional standards for computer technicians and software specialists.

Trend: Tomorrow's citizens will need and expect to engage in lifelong learning

A career used to last for life. Once a carpenter, always a carpenter; once a chemist, always a chemist. Today, new technology could redefine or replace almost anyone's job—even the industry in which they work. Today's students will pursue an average of five entirely different occupations during their working lives. Both management and employees must get used to the idea of lifelong learning, which is becoming a significant part of working life at all levels.
Automation, international competition, and other fundamental changes in the economy are destroying the few remaining well-paid jobs that do not require advanced training. The only way to survive in such an economy is through continual retraining. Public schools will need to provide some of this training after normal school hours. State, local, and private agencies are also likely to play a greater role in training by offering more internships, apprenticeships, pre-employment training, and adult education.
Lifelong learning is also becoming an expectation outside the workplace. Adult education is expanding—not only in response to adults' need to train for new careers, but also because healthy, energetic people need to keep active during retirement. And as current minority and low-income households buy computers and log on to the Internet, groups now disadvantaged will increasingly be able to engage in online education.

How Schools Can Respond

Ironically, as the need for lifelong learning, critical thinking skills, and creative problem solving in society increases, schools may be facing a new breed of student, born of a culture in which people begin building a résumé and working on college qualifications as early as 6th grade. In Doing School, Denise Clark Pope (2001) writes that these students often lack the intrinsic motivation to learn, bearing instead the enormous burden of part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, community service, and maintaining competitive test scores and grade point averages. High-stakes testing and similar offshoots of the standards and accountability movement add to the pressure, promoting rote learning of discrete pieces of knowledge instead of student engagement, initiative, and creativity.
  • Encourage teachers to adopt lifelong learning, both in their subject specialties and in pedagogical practice. Science and technology in particular are experiencing rapid change, and teachers who rely on textbooks for their curriculum guarantee that their lessons will be obsolete.
  • Envision schools, libraries, and community centers evolving into general-purpose facilities with Internet access, where students can gather to study online and adults can telecommute to remote jobs, reducing rush-hour traffic. This multifaceted approach would constitute a very efficient use of school facilities.
  • Encourage high school seniors to engage in preprofessional, career preparation experiences (such as independent studies, international exchanges, apprenticeships, internships, or certification programs) rather than allowing them to waste valuable time between their acceptance into college and the start of their freshman year.
The demand for lifelong learning marks a sea change in U.S. education. Learning to learn must become the underpinning of all curriculums and must be a requirement of both students and their instructors in all content areas and grade levels.
This trend will also broaden the function of school systems, creating still more demands on their time and resources. Teens uncertain about going to college will train to earn a living. Adults will spend their evenings in class, preparing for their next careers. Teachers will study during nights and weekends to keep their subject knowledge and pedagogy current. Continual learning will become a way of life for all who wish to succeed. For 21st century schools, it will become a new mandate.

Cautious Optimism

These trends and other changes occurring in society and the work force place new demands on U.S. public schools at a time when budget cuts are making it difficult to meet today's basic needs. More challenging years lie ahead.
Yet we are cautiously optimistic about the future of education. In any poll, U.S. voters—the people who must pay for our schools—consistently cite education as the highest priority. Today's experiments in cut-rate, free-market education will not survive any longer than it takes to recognize their failure. If technology brings new challenges for our schools, it also provides a means to make schools more effective.
Ten years from now, teachers and administrators may look back on this decade as one of the most trying periods that U.S. schools have ever experienced. But if educators implement the reforms that the future demands, they will also remember this period as the time when they learned to give all their students an education suited to the modern, high-tech world.

Birkerts, S. (1995). The Gutenberg elegies: The fate of reading in an electronic age. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.

Cetron, M. J., & Cetron, K. (1999, December). An educational renaissance. The School Administrator, 6–9.

Cetron, M. J., & Davies, O. (2003). 50 trends shaping the future (special report). Bethesda, MD: World Future Society.

Cetron, M. J., Soriano, B., & Gayle, M. (1985). Schools of the future: How American business and education can cooperate to save our schools. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Congressional Budget Office. (2003, August). The budget and economic outlook: An update. Washington, DC: Author.

Gardner, H. (2000). The disciplined mind: Beyond facts and standardized tests, the K–12 education that every child deserves. New York: Penguin.

Jackson, R. (2002). The global retirement crisis. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kleiner, C. (2003, Oct. 20). Living in Tech State. U.S. News and World Report, 66.

Olson, L. (2000, Sept. 27). School-age “millenni-boom” predicted for next 100 years. Education Week, 34–35.

Pope, D. C. (2001). “Doing school”: How we are creating a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and mis-educated students. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2002). Population projections [Online]. Available:www.census.gov/population/www/projections/popproj.html

End Notes

1 In a Delphi poll, experts complete a questionnaire designed to elicit their views. The answers from this survey are circulated among the participants and the poll is reported. In the second round of questioning, participants reconsider their original views in light of the opinions of their peers. This typically results in a narrower range of replies and a more solid consensus. The Delphi technique has been used in several thousand studies and generally produces analyses and forecasts that are among the most reliable available.

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