Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Vision for the New School

Journalism has been struggling to keep its head above water for many years. In my favorite blog post of 2009 Clay Shirky contrasted the advent of the Internet in the newsroom with the introduction of the printing press. Journalism (and I believe all of society) is experiencing a technology induced cascade of social, economic, and political changes. I expect one of the coming changes to be the sudden death of government education. Sudden relative to journalism.

I live in St. Louis where the government schools are unaccredited. The city will pay to send your children to a county school if the county school accepts them, but many kids still receive a dubious education in a St. Louis city school. Why should these children not have access to the best lectures available?

Sooner or later someone is going to upload a complete high school curriculum to YouTube. Perhaps someone has. They'll build a website that supplements the video material with an open source textbook, homework, readings, and testing—a virtual learning environment like Moodle. Over time, the best video lectures on a subject will be remixed together to produce an even better educational experience. New material will be integrated as it is created and unaccredited school districts will replace their teachers with bouncers to maintain order during the video lecture. Homeschoolers will have an Internet based educational alternative—one that might be configured to help them avoid incarceration in backward states like Maryland. Families will work with like minded religious institutions to create al a carte educational curricula that meet their shared academic, civic, and religious priorities. Churches, synagogues, and mosques around the country will become venues for education, just as they once were hundreds of years ago. School boards will set grade appropriate testing requirements in academic fields (including civics) that meet the needs and demands of the local community, but the curriculum will be crowdsourced by those that choose to contribute content to this educational approach.

This will work for middle school as well... probably, down to fourth grade or so, but something like government schools may persist for the early grades. It will work for colleges and universities, too. In fact, George Mason economics professor Alex Taborrock is expecting something like it. In his post Online Education and the Market for Superstar Teachers, he writes:
I have argued that universities will move to a superstar market for teachers in which the very best teachers use on-line instruction and TAs to teach thousands of students at many different universities.  The full online model is not here yet but I see an increasing amount of evidence for the superstar model of teaching.  At GMU some of our best teachers are being recruited by other universities with very attractive offers and some of our most highly placed students have earned their positions through excellence in teaching rather than through the more traditional route of research.

I do not think GMU is unique in this regard--my anecdotal evidence is that the market for professors is rewarding great teachers with higher wages and higher placements than in earlier years.
You can already hear the caterwauling on the left: "Oh the humanity! Imagine the class sizes!" Student-teacher ratios are mostly irrelevant. Smaller class sizes create a larger cadre of paid patrons for like-minded politicians because more teachers are needed for the same number of students. In other words, part of the reason we have smaller class sizes is that politicians want to be re-elected so they've created a public perception that low student-teacher ratios are important as a way to cater to one of their constituencies. A couple years ago a McKinsey & Co. study found (the original study link isn't working, but here's a post about it):
South Korea and Singapore employ fewer teachers than other systems; in effect, this ensures that they can spend more money on each teacher at an equivalent funding level.  Both countries recognize that while class size has relatively little impact on the quality of student outcomes (see above), teacher quality does.  South Korea’s student-to-teacher ration is 30:1, compared to an OECD average of 17.1, enabling it in effect to double teacher salaries while maintaining the same overall funding level as other OECD countries….

Singapore has pursued a similar strategy but has also front-loaded compensation.  This combination allows it to spend less on primary education than almost any other OECD and yet still be able to attract strong candidates into the teaching profession.  In addition, because Singapore and South Korea need fewer teachers,  they are also in a position to be more selective about who becomes a teacher.  This, in turn, increases the status of teaching, making the profession even more attractive.
In short, the marginal educational utility of the next teacher you hire is pretty low. Politicians and academics have been telling us for decades that they know best. They've been lying about the importance of class size, about climategate, and about many other things simply to marshal your money to their policy preferences and favored constituencies. Why should these people keep their taxpayer provided revenue streams? How can they when their elite status has been tarnished by their failures in their own areas of expertise?

Perhaps, taxpayers will breath a sigh of relief as the underfunded public pension situation improves with massive layoffs in government education. Politicians that have relied on the patronage purchased votes of teachers will find that their public choice gambit no longer works when their rent-seeking supporters are gone. And the quality of a decentralized, crowdsourced American education system tailored to communities and students will become the envy of the world.

Journalism has been unraveling for a couple of decades. I expect our educational evolution to be quicker and I think there's an economic reason for it. Education is largely a government function while journalism is largely a private industry. The creative destruction of the news media market has chipped away at journalism in little ways for years, but education is politically protected from the creative destruction of academic competition. Look at one service a teacher provides: they sell the same lecture each year. Why does paying a little more for an algebra lecture each year make any sense with the wide availability of video and the means to deliver it on demand? It doesn't, especially when there's likely a much better lecture to be had on YouTube. Teachers will be protected by their political patrons while the infrastructure and curricula are built out, but then, with looming budget deficits, governments will have little choice but to supplant them with cheaper, better options.

I could be wrong. After all, we still have libraries despite the fact that they could be replaced by a Kindle and/or the Internet. Of course, I think it's just a matter of time before municipalities start selling off libraries to pay their debts.

As I was writing this, news broke about President Barack Obama's announcement of $250 million dollars "to help train over 10,000 new math and science teachers over the next five years." Teacher's worked hard to get Obama elected, so I'm not surprised by his patronage. Still, when a complete high school curriculum is put on YouTube and a virtual learning website is built to supplement it, do you think it will cost anywhere near that?

Areas for further thought:

  1. Will private, say, Catholic, schools decide to build out the infrastructure and produce the video lectures?
  2. What are the global implications? What about just the Anglosphere?

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