Monday, April 4, 2011

Public schools have experienced "negative productivity"

Stephen Moore at The Wall Street Journal:
Where are the productivity gains in government? Consider a core function of state and local governments: schools. Over the period 1970-2005, school spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled, while standardized achievement test scores were flat. Over roughly that same time period, public-school employment doubled per student, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington. That is what economists call negative productivity.
But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards: We gauge school performance not by outputs, but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn't pay teachers enough or we need smaller class sizes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would have half as many educators, smaller school budgets, and higher graduation rates and test scores. 
The same is true of almost all other government services. Mass transit spends more and more every year and yet a much smaller share of Americans use trains and buses today than in past decades. One way that private companies spur productivity is by firing underperforming employees and rewarding excellence. In government employment, tenure for teachers and near lifetime employment for other civil servants shields workers from this basic system of reward and punishment. It is a system that breeds mediocrity, which is what we've gotten. 
Our local schools are resistant to using technology as a way to measure student performance levels.  This seems to be an obvious area where "21st century skills" could be applied to increase productivity - reducing costs while improving student achievement levels.  Khan Academy, the brainchild of a smart, ambitious man, does this beautifully.


Teachers and coaches can access all of their students' data. You can get a summary of class performance as a whole or dive into a particular student's profile to figure out exactly which topics are problematic. The class profile lets coaches glance at their dashboard and quickly figure out how to best spend their time teaching.
We've put a lot of energy into making sure that the Khan Academy empowers teachers by giving them access to the data they should've had for years. You'll know instantly if a student is struggling in multiplying fractions...or if she hit a streak and is now far ahead of the class.


  1. Every teacher would probably have to have a laptop. And training is the big cost, but it is inevitable and it has to be done.

  2. However, and it's a big however: the videos are "good" old fashioned Passive Lecture about Procedures. See

  3. This is happening in higher ed right now, especially in big science survey courses. Students get clickers, and the professor stops after doing a learning chunk, and administers something called a Conceptest (horrid name). The students vote for their answers via clicker, and the data is immediately accessible and displayed on the screen. The professor then goes back over the material based on the results. I don't do it because I don't think much of what I am trying to teach fits into the mold of chunked learning and multiple choice quizzes. Mark Guzdial at Georgia Tech is using it though, in intro courses, and occasionally blogs about it.

  4. Thank you to SiouxGeonz for posting that link. It puts into words exactly what bothers me about Khan Academy, and the clicker movement in higher ed. I thought I was the only person in America who wasn't big on KhanAcademy - glad to know I am not alone.
    I teach in computer science, and I think that colors my views. It is very hard to teach computer science without being at least a partial constructivist.Computer science is simply not amenable to being taught as a set of packaged "skills", not matter how much those Teach Yourself Programming Language X in 24 Hours books try to do it. I see it all the time - a student may be able to memorize the syntax of Programming Language X, and can even memorize what, say, a particular loop form looks like - but when asked to write a program that solves a particular problem, the student is lost because he or she has no understanding of how to combine the loop form with anything else to solve a problem

  5. SiouxGeonz -- I'm on the instructionist side, so that might help explain why I like Khan. There is certainly a divide out there, with constructivists believing that "acquiring a sequential set of skills" is a myth when it comes to learning math.

    I don't know what your source is, but the information I've seen contradicts your assertion that "most of American math education is instructionism". I wish that were true, especially in our local schools. The NSF texts, with curriculum in line with many state standards, are widely used in public schools.

  6. Of course, it takes more than "skills" to perform well in most disciplines, but memorizing certain chunks of information frees up short term memory for critical thinking. That, according to cognitive science, is how experts operate.

  7. Clickers intrigue me. I'm sure there is a down side, but I can see the potential for immediate feedback.

    I've read that teachers used to (and still do) use similar techniques with individual white boards for their students. The immediate feedback is there, but not the automatic recording for the record.

  8. Hmmm, what I see in terms of math at my kids school is mainly instructionist, with some side trips into utter silliness like drawing pictures of addition facts.
    I am not even sure what skills I would have my students memorize in my intro course (which is where we see most of the problem). OK, I guess they memorize the fact that semicolons are at the end of a statement in Java, and that the condition in a while statement has parentheses around it. But that is maybe 10% of the battle, and it isn't even that important - other programming languages may have a different syntax, but the underlying problem solving strategies are the same.
    My students are wonderful memorizers and will dutifully memorize every example that I give them in lecture. But they don't understand why any of it works, so as soon as they need to recombine pieces to solve something a bit different, they are lost. For example, we go through simple array algorithms - finding the max, finding the average, etc. They don't see that these are all variants on the same pattern, so if I then ask them to, say, find the count of all elements in the array with some condition, they can't do it, even though it is pretty much the same algorithm. Worse yet, when they get to a more advanced course and need to use a different programming language, they don't see that it is the exact SAME algorithm in the new language.

  9. Think Math is described as a blend of the best of traditional and reform math, but it is at its core a reform/constructivist program with practice thrown in for computational fluency. It is NCTM "standards based", which is constructivist.

    Some key features of TM are hallmarks of constructivism - emphasis on spiraling not mastery, group/partner activities, "low threshold" "high ceiling" which contradicts a sequential format, students figure out and develop their own strategies, etc. (I looked at my notes and checked the website to remember this.)

    Now, how the teachers actually implement TM could very well be more direct instruction. Back when it was first used, it was implemented more closely "by the book", but that could very have changed.

  10. From what I've read, many constructivist math programs are supplemented by teacher/parent/tutor-developed direct instruction and practice activities.

    My friend Catherine has said that parents never request a tutor to use constructivist methods for their children. Well, maybe she didn't say "never", but "rarely".

  11. Speaking of Catherine....I've got to start posting passages from Arvin Vohra's book about the "Asian method" of teaching math.

    It is the exact opposite of everything we do here.

    Rote memorization of formulas and procedures from a very early age - long before kids are going to encounter the material in a class.

    Then, when kids **do** encounter the material, they don't have 'cognitive load' problems; their working memory can hold far more content 'cuz they've got the formulas & procedures down cold.

    Another intriguing aspect of the 'Asian method' is the time lag. It takes 10 years for a new memory to "consolidate" into long-term memory. (I'm not sure what "consolidate" means -- I have failed to consolidate what I read about consolidation two years ago.)

    In any event, I suspect that Asians may teach their kids some formulas and procedures 10 years before they encounter them in school -- which would mean the kids have not only 'mastered' these formulas and procedures; they've consolidated them in long-term memory.

    Very intriguing.