Since the mid l980's the estimates of policy time have taken several strange transformations. On one hand, there has been ever growing reluctance to describe operational costs and benefits with long range forecasts. Skeptics argue that the real shelf life of an honest social policy appraisal is approximate to an "extended" five day weather forecast. Who can tell who might be downsized in some "load shed" or "jobbing?" Who can count upon a state budget being completed within the legal requirements? The uncertainty feeds the day to day hedging and the continual state of ambiguity.
On the other hand, the years estimated to reach full implementation of any major policy reform agenda has not shortened significantly. The l983 "nation at risk" charges of k-12 public education failure culminated in a l988 President and Governor's Conference pledging allegiance to the American 2000 goal. Those estimated twelve years shortened to eight when, in l992, President Clinton declared the Goals 2000 agenda (some would argue-quite legitimately- that the Goals 2000 did not go into force until enacted in legislation in 1994).
This past spring, the New York Board of Regents mandated full implementation of an all Regents secondary curriculum by the year 2003. The time between the initial year of implementation efforts in English Language Arts (starting in September 1996) and the last of the declared reform initiative is eight and one half years. While the different patterning of long term expectations could be attributed to national versus state objectives, it is just as likely that both complex policy systems exhibit the same means of estimating full compliance.
What do educators responsible for directing the school reform initiatives toward the 21st century tell the citizens paying taxes to support good schools and the parents expecting their children to become literate and academically competent? Is the answer as simple as distinguishing "education time" as a study of moment to moment personal development and "school time" as the allocation patterns of dynamic complex organizations operating? If so, the answers to the question of how long will it take to reform compulsory k-12 education are (a) it depends upon each individual child attending any form of schooling and (b) it depends upon the balancing of the institution of public education against all other forms of schooling.
Under the instant to instant interpretation (a above)the public schools could be abolished along with the entire public service sector or they could be reduced to an 1830ish "charity school" role for serving the most disadvantaged and dispossessed in the country. Under the interpretation conceding the complexities of real policy life and bureaucratic organization the best bet for a successful negotiation and accommodation of k-12 public schools seems eight to twelve years. This might be considered as an improvement from the conventional wisdom that persistent educational change takes closer to on half a century.
One thing is sure. There are a considerable group of people that will bet everything on the instant to instant hope. The technology translation of this vision seems a replay of the 1960's "be here now" or "perceiving, behaving, becoming" assumptions dressed up in the garb of high internet fashion. Under this version of the future what a person knows is more likely to be a measure of their particular "bundling" of information (e.g., Netscape "bookmarks" or Microsoft Explorer "favorites") and less the conventional testing demonstrations.
Another thing is sure. There is another large group of people that will bet everything on the assumption of eight to twelve years of planned change development. If the past is prelude to the future, those fighting for the future viability of the public school institution will look alot like the public school educators that have worked so diligently to teach children since world war two. How the future will judge present public school educators is anyones guess. If the past has only generated the momentum for a countervailing opposite to present day schooling, the institution of public school may refind a description from another era. Computers may be banned to school children as an access to the devils of pornography and politically incorrect thoughts. Communication may come to depend upon the demonstration of what you know through the use of the quill pen, slate and chalk or old Smith Corona typewriters. The public schools of America could recreate the McGuffey and King James Version days with a late l990's to early 21st century vengeance.
As the 1996-1997 academic year progresses in k-12 school settings throughout New York and the nation we should be sensitive to use of any future year as a benchmark of expectation. Hopefully, we will be able to distinguish the expected replacement and upgrade of computers and other technology as they contrast to buying gas for school buses on one hand and retrofitting the roofs of buildings on the other. Hopefully, we will be able to distinguish the meaning of "good" educating as a reciprocating feature of teachers, students and parents thinking together from the meaning of "good" schooling as a successfully negotiated set of allocation decisions for or against the present institution. If so, there is a slim chance we may also recognize different meanings of estimating time for progress and the difference between forward, idle and reverse in planned change initiatives.