Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Radical Idea for Education Reform?


The question mark in the title is because it is possible this won't be seen as such a radical idea. I think it would represent a major shift at the very least, and I expect most people to see it as pretty radical. Let me know what you think.

I believe most people would agree that we have problems with educating our society. The problems are the result of systemic issues in society. They can't be laid at the feet of teachers or schools. Parents, media, and many other factors play an equally significant role, to the point that just working on schools and changing up teaching isn't going to fix it. There is only so much a teacher can do with an unmotivated student whose parents really don't care.

I've generally been against the proposals I've seen to "fix education". I think accountability for teachers is a good thing, but I hate the "teach to the test" mentality that current standardized testing produces. I don't blame the teachers and schools though. If I were told that my salary and job security were to be based on my student's results on one of today's tests, I would teach to that test too. I'd be stupid not to.

I also have generally rejected voucher proposals because I fear that they will lead to a number of different problems, especially in areas of lower population density that can't support lots of schools using the standard model. I like the idea of market forces and competition, but I see problems with vouchers that outweigh the benefits.

Modified Testing

The solution I present here was really born from something that my friend, Jason Hughes, said in a discussion about education. The comment was that you want to pay people when students pass the tests, not before then. Home schooling was part of the conversation as well.  This happened about the same time that IBM's Watson was beating humans at Jeopardy!. That combination was significant for me because I don't think I could support that idea if the tests were the standardized tests of today. However, I think Watson like technology gives us the ability to make much better tests that we could literally reconfigure the entire education system around, with the idea that people get paid when the tests are passed.

I don't give multiple choice tests. I know they can be built fairly well, but I insist on short answer with the possibility of partial credit. I just think this is better. It isn't the best though. The ideal test format is an oral exam. It gives the tester the ability to really probe into the student's brain to see what they do and don't know. The tester can help occasionally with little steps and take that into account for the grading. If the student can get 90% of the problem, it generally shouldn't matter too much what the 10% they miss is. However, with other testing techniques, if that is near the beginning they miss pretty much the full problem because they can't get started.

Oral exams aren't used in many places though. They are simply too labor intensive. Even at a small school like Trinity they are often prohibitively expensive. On a larger scale you would also run into problems of uniformity in the testing if a single person can't give all the tests. This is where a Watson-like computer could really help. The computer could have expert level knowledge of concepts and ask questions that start with the basics and work up, going through a web of knowledge associated with the topic and probing how far the student knows things. The computer results could be very uniform across huge populations and really tell what the student does and doesn't know.

This is different from normal tests because the computer could explore a huge range of topics. If the student doesn't know things, it stops asking questions in that direction. A normal test covering the same material would require thousands of questions. This means you could have detailed reports on what the student has mastered and what needs to be worked on. You can also give credit or pay out for fractional mastery of a subject and track improvement over time in a far more detailed way.

The Proposal

Combine this type of testing with "pay people for the tests" and you can fundamentally change the economics of education. The main idea is that "people" becomes parents/students, not schools. Schools will still exist and parents can pay schools to teach their kids, but the money comes to the parents first. If you are poor and can't get a job that pays well, home schooling might be your best source of income. In that situation the parents will support their kid's learning because that is how they pay the rent and buy the food.

The market will create schools and professional tutoring locations because many parents won't have an economic incentive or the knowledge to teach everything their kid needs to know. The difference between this and vouchers is that it will scale to any size. In regions of low population density, you might not be able to support schools with diverse values, but smaller tutoring services would work well and could easily pop up to fill in voids without being 50+ miles from a kid's house. What is more, because this lets parents get paid for teaching their kids, rural locations, where jobs are often hard to come by, will probably see a lot of home schooling and you get a system where the economic ideal for many parents will be for them to learn new material so they can teach it.

The Details

Of course, the devil is in the details and I certainly won't claim to have worked them all out. However, I think one of the wonderful things about this system is that there aren't many details. It basically comes down to, what do you test on and how much do you pay for it? IMO this is a decision to be made at the state or local level. However, you can get a general idea pretty quickly. Start with topics that are the current education requirements in the state. Consider building from there. As for how much to pay, figure out how much you pay in education right now, subtract off the cost of running the testing centers (which shouldn't be all that high) and then divide by how many kids are in the state and how many topics you expect kids to master each year. It is also possible to pay out differently for different topics. I'm sure that there could be ways of doing that intelligently, but I am not convinced it should be attempted on the first cut.

Another detail that will have to be dealt with is whether to scale payments based on number of children in a family. I don't know if this would really be needed, but I could see situations where people have more kids just to keep getting those education checks. For some reason I don't think this is a real problem. First, you don't start paying until they are several years old. That removes a lot of the possible incentive right there. Second, teaching little kids and older kids at the same time will be hard and potentially inefficient. You probably make more getting your kids up to calculus and advanced composition than you would if you stop early with the older ones and try to get new younger ones. Indeed, having payouts increase for higher level topics would make sense and would help to prevent people from having kids just to get checks.

Other Benefits

One of the potential problems with schools today is that they become daycare centers with teachers spending lots of time just watching over the "children". That is a waste of time and effort in a number of different ways. If you get paid for passing test for material mastery, you want to use the time teaching, not baby sitting.

Another potential advantage, though one that people might find controversial, is that kids stop when they are done. If a student reaches his/her limit, and simply can't master any other skills, it is time to move on to something other than education. Hopefully something that uses what they have learned productively. What I think might really happen though is that students max out in some areas, but keep improving in others. The result is maximum utilization. They take things as far as they are capable, and because they have real economic incentive (as do their parents) they really will try to keep going as long as they can. Current school systems don't work this way.

Adult Education

While the details of how it would work and how far it can be pushed are less clear in my mind, I really do think that this idea could be extended past normal school age. We already have government programs to help re-educate people who have lots their jobs to give them new skills so they can find new jobs. These programs pay for the school, not the results. Pay out when mastery has been demonstrated, and those programs would probably work a heck of a lot better.

I'm sure this also applies to college curricula, but I'm not certain how much or how well. It likely does very well in some areas, but I'm not sure if it really works for all. Still it is something worth thinking about.

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