Friday, September 16, 2005

Educational Reform


Hopping on the bandwagon of those who propose, without any further evidence or explanation, that paying teachers more will improve schools, Chris Whittle of Edison Schools Inc. asserts,
If you believe (1) that teacher quality is crucial to the success of our schools and (2) that ultimately we get what we pay for, then let's be clear: We need to double the average teacher's pay in America - and even triple it for our best-performing teachers - if schools are to compete with other fields for the talent they need.

But providing that kind of increase is far from easy. Teachers and their unions must fight for even 5 percent annual raises. Why? Because the taxpayer-crushing scale of K-12 education makes any increase a very big deal.
I didn't notice the identity of the author until after I read this proposal. My initial reaction was, "A school administrator's dream" - think about the fact that school administrators often earn about three or four times the salary of their top-paid teachers. So I can't say that I was surprised to read that the proposal came from a school CEO.

Given that Whittle rules out tax increases to pay these doubled and tripled salaries, noting that they would be incredibly burdensome for the middle classes and politically unpalatable to politicians, what does he propose? Larger class sizes and/or less classroom instruction, coupled with study hall. Or do I misread?
America has about 3 million teachers in its public schools. What if we had a new school design that required only 1.5 million teachers but paid them double current levels? Does that mean class sizes would be doubled? Not necessarily; it's not what I would recommend. But it would be a way to force us to confront this thorny question: Is a class of 30 with a great teacher educationally inferior to a class of 15 with a so-so teacher?

But school designers of the future might choose instead to reduce by half the number of classes students attend, keeping class size static. Under such a plan students might spend just as much time -- or more -- in school, but it would be divided between "conventional classes" and new, independent learning programs (possibly similar to those being used in home-schooling programs today). This would be particularly applicable to middle and high schools.
Okay... he says "independent learning programs", not "study hall", which implies a greater amount of structure as the children learn without the assistance of teachers than a traditional "study hall" environment. But when was the last time you were in a middle school or high school where doubling a class size would mean moving up to thirty student classes? Or where the majority of the school's students, placed in study carrolls in front of self-paced computerized learning modules, would buckle down and do the work?

I'm thinking of the people I know - good students - who took self-paced college classes in math or computer science, where the sessions took place in a lab, tests were computerized, and they could proceed at their own pace over the course of the semester. I can't think of one who worked ahead of schedule. For that matter, I can't think of one who didn't have to cram in a bunch of extra sessions toward the end of the semester in order to complete the program. That type of program may well work in home school settings, where a parent monitors progress, but mom and dad won't be hanging out in Whittle's glorified study halls - either to help children understand the material, or to crack the whip when they fall behind in their studies.

Across the hall at the New York Times, Thomas "The world is flat, flat, flat and buy my book" Friedman describes the type of self-study program that Whittle may have in mind, and (in fairness to his flatness argument) notes that it is emerging from India.
With a team of Indian, British and Chinese math and education specialists, the HeyMath group basically said to itself: If you were a parent anywhere in the world and you noticed that Singapore kids, or Indian kids or Chinese kids, were doing really well in math, wouldn't you like to see the best textbooks, teaching and assessment tools, or the lesson plans that they were using to teach fractions to fourth graders or quadratic equations to 10th graders? And wouldn't it be nice if one company then put all these best practices together with animation tools, and delivered them through the Internet so any teacher in the world could adopt or adapt them to his or her classroom? That's HeyMath.
That model has merit - take a look at what works throughout the world, determine the best educational methods, and provide a mechanism by which they can be employed anywhere in the world. At the same time, trying to automate those teaching methods through software is a bit more complicated, studies of computer software for teaching math concepts suggest that its promise has not yet materialized, and the cost of buying and maintaining the equipment and software used in computerized educational programs can be immense. (An Internet-based program like the one Friedman describes could overcome some of the cost and maintenance issues by reducing the need to keep updating computers to power the latest software (as opposed to a browser) and having the latest software instantly available by virtue of subscription to the remote Application Service Provider.)

If this is the type of system that Whittle has in mind, perhaps he envisions providing schools with the hardware and applications they need on the basis of an annual fee. (And if anything can be learned from Whittle's history, that fee can be reduced by making the kids view ads every time they fire up an educational program... or perhaps by weaving product placements into the software itself. "If you have five cans of Coca Cola, and your friends take three of those cans of Coca Cola, how many friends do you have left?")

No comments:

Post a Comment