Category Archives: Reforming schools

‘It’s Like Amazon, But for Preschool’ (Audrey Watters)


This guest post in written by Audrey Watters. She describes herself as “ … an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.”


A year ago, the richest man in the world asked Twitter for suggestions on how he should most efficiently and charitably spend his wealth. And today, Jeff Bezos unveiled a few details about his plans – other than funding space travel, that is. His new philanthropic effort, The Day 1 Fund, will finance two initiatives: the Families Fund will work with existing organizations to address homelessness and hunger; and the Academies fund “will launch an operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.”

“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos wrote in a note posted to Twitter. “Most important among these will be genuine intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

The child will be the customer.

Bezos then went on to cite a phrase that is so often misquoted and misattributed in those shiny, happy motivational PowerPoint slides – you know the ones – that people like to post to social media: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” W. B. Yeats never said this, for the record, but words get so easily twisted, history so easily co-opted.

The assurance that “the child will be the customer” underscores the belief – shared by many in and out of education reform and education technology – that education is simply a transaction: an individual’s decision-making in a “marketplace of ideas.” (There is no community, no public responsibility, no larger civic impulse for early childhood education here. It’s all about private schools offering private, individual benefits.)

This idea that “the child will be the customer” is, of course, also a nod to “personalized learning” as well, as is the invocation of a “Montessori-inspired” model. As the customer, the child will be tracked and analyzed, her preferences noted so as to make better recommendations to up-sell her on the most suitable products. And if nothing else, Montessori education in the United States is full of product recommendations.

There’s another piece to all this, not mentioned in Bezos’s note about building a chain of preschools that “use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon”: Amazon’s own labor practices. The online retail giant is a notoriously terrible place to work – the pay, particularly in the warehouses, is so low that many employees receive government assistance. The working conditions are dangerous and dehumanizing. “Amazon has patented a system that would put workers in a cage, on top of a robot,” read the headline in last week’s Seattle Times. And it’s not so great for the white collar workers either. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” one employee in books marketing told The New York Times back in 2015.

The majority of the early childhood educators in the US are already very poorly paid; many preschools have incredibly high turnover rates. As research has demonstrated that preschool has a lasting positive effect on children’s educational attainment, there have been efforts to “raise the standards,” demanding for example that preschools be staffed by more qualified teachers. But that demand for more training and certification hasn’t brought with it better pay or benefits. The median pay for preschool teachers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is less than $30,000 a year. Even those with Bachelor’s degrees earn only about $14.70 an hour, about half of the average wages for all those with the same level of education.

This is a field in which a third of employees already qualify for government assistance. And now Jeff Bezos, a man whose own workers also rely on these same anti-poverty programs, wants to step in – not as a taxpayer, oh no, but as a philanthropist. Honestly, he could have a more positive impact here by just giving those workers a raise. (Or, you know, by paying taxes.)

Bezos is not alone in eyeing the early education “market,” which has received quite a bit of attention from ed-tech investors in recent years. So far this year, three companies have raised venture capital to help people run preschools and childcare facilities in their homes: Wonderschool, WeeCare, and Procare Software. Last year, VCs poured millions into similar sorts of companies, including Tinkergarten, Sawyer, and Kinedu. Investors in these startups include some of the “big money” names in Silicon Valley: Omidyar Network, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Andreessen Horowitz, among others. (One of these companies, WeeCare, says it’s also planning to train and license childcare providers, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the micro-certificate, online education, nanodegree folks also jump on this bandwagon. “Uber for Education” or something.)

Ostensibly, there’s no shortage of potential “customers” for these private preschool software startups – the demand for childcare is high, and many families live in what the Center for American Progress has called “child care deserts,” that is places where there are no options for affordable, high-quality early childhood education.

But are private preschool chains really the path we want to pursue, particularly if we believe that access to excellent early childhood education is so incredibly crucial? Can the gig economy and the algorithm ever provide high quality preschool? For all the flaws in the public school system, it’s important to remember: there is no accountability in billionaires’ educational philanthropy.

And, as W. B. Yeats famously never said, charity is no substitute for justice.




Filed under Reforming schools

The Arc of Progressivism (Part 2)


Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?

Is there ever a conference on school reform that the word “progressive” is not uttered?

Answer is no to both questions.

At different times in the history of public schooling, progressive-inclined reformers sought to change curricular and instructional practices from traditional (or teacher-centered) to progressive (or student-centered). At these times–the 1890s-1940s, the 1960s, the 1990s, and currently–the language used, the articles and books written, and arrays of conferences held for policymakers and practitioners contained selected items chosen from a menu of progressivism’s tenets and practices (see Part 1).

After the hullabaloo of the these reforms quieted and researchers looked at the results of progressive reforms, they found that curricula had changed becoming far more connected to the lives of children and youth (e.g., social studies replaced history in many schools)–see here and here. Moreover, large-scale experiments and evaluations had been launched (e.g., the Eight Year Study and Follow Through Project), and staff development for practitioners to use progressive practices in their classrooms (e.g. Denver Curriculum experiment, Activity Program in New York City elementary schools).

But when it came to changes in classroom practice, that is, actual shifting instruction and learning from teacher- to student-centered, only marginal modifications had occurred (see here and here). Yes, separate progressive schools, mostly private, had come into existence (e.g., Little Red School House, University of Chicago Lab School, Montessori schools) but within public schools, the arc of progressivism was peripheral to most classrooms. What did occur  often was a mixing of progressive and traditional practices in lesson activities, grouping practices, and managing of students, overall there was no significant shift in practitioner behavior (see here and here).

How come?

The short answer is the age-graded school. The long answer is the “grammar of instruction,” the organizational structures and processes within schools that influence how teachers teach and have taught.

As David Tyack and William Tobin described it:

The basic “grammar” of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. By the “grammar” of schooling we mean the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction. Here we have in mind, for example, standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating themto classrooms, and splintering knowledge into “subjects.”

In 1902 John Dewey argued that it was easy to dismiss the way schools are organized “as something comparatively external and indifferent to educational purposes and ideals,” but in fact “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child. . .really controls the whole system….

Practices like graded classrooms structure schools in a manner analogous to the way grammar organizes meaning in language. Neither the grammar of schooling nor the grammar of speech needs to be consciously understood to operate smoothly. Indeed, much of the grammar of schooling has become so well established that it is typically taken for granted as just the way schools are. It is the departure from customary practice in schooling or speaking that attracts attention.

People are accustomed, for example, to elementary schools that are divided into grades in whose self-contained and coeducational classrooms pupils are taught several basic subjects by a single teacher.

High schools are organized somewhat differently. Students move every period of about 55 minutes, collecting Carnegie units of academic credit along the way. In each separate class they encounter a different teacher who is a member of a specialized department and who instructs about 150 pupils a day—in five classes of perhaps thirty each—in a particular subject. In secondary schools, but generally not in elementary, students have some degree of choice of what to study….

Why the remarkable stability of a “grammar of schooling” in U.S. schools?

Americans believe (and have believed for over a century) that the organization of the age-graded school with its daily schedule, self-contained classrooms, textbooks, homework, and tests is what a “real school” is. Departures from this organizational form such as non-graded schools, open space schools anchored in team teaching, students spending a significant portion of the doing online lessons, or alternatives that substantially alter or depart from this model are often rejected. If the “real school” is not working well, even failing as determined by test scores, then improve it, not dump it. In short, the age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling” that is embodies is sustained by most Americans’ social beliefs in its efficacy. This durable model of schooling is now embedded in the culture of the nation.

And that is a major reason why the “grammar of schooling” persists making it very difficult for progressive-oriented reforms aimed at altering teaching practices have had a tough time shifting teacher-centered to student-centered instruction.*

But mattresses continue to be on sale every day and the word “progressive”spills forth at conferences convened to push school reforms.


*Note, however, that the explanation I offer holds not only for the U.S. but also for international efforts to shift traditional teaching practices to progressive ones. Part 3 elaborates on what has occurred globally in reforming the “grammar of schooling.”






Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

The Arc of Progressivism in Schools (Part 1)

The Phi Delta Kappan poll of public attitudes toward public education published this month has 78 percent of respondents, the highest ever since 1997, voting to reform the existing system of schooling rather than seek alternatives (e.g., vouchers, charters). Among those respondents who rank their local schools highly (p. 12), the percentage wanting to improve existing system rather than replace it rose to 86. Among minority respondents, 19 percent of blacks and 34 percent of Hispanics did want to replace existing public schools.

These results showed great support for improving public schools rather than chasing reforms that replace the existing system. Such polls also remind me that even if there is strong support for  improving the existing system of public schools, the historic competing goals within tax-supported public schools persist. That is, schools should both change individuals and society while at the same time conserve and transmit core community and national values to the next generation (see here). These contradictory goals are in the DNA of tax-supported U.S. public schools. They become the basis for progressive reforms past and present to improve schooling.

That tension between fundamental values driving tax-supported public schools has been there for more than a century and will continue in perpetuity because these competing values are what the larger society expects of its public schools. Among policymakers and practitioners, the abiding tension between these rival goals can be seen in the historic struggle between educational progressives and conservatives who not only have competing views of the direction of schools but also have differing ideas about how children should learn, how teachers should teach, and what knowledge is of most worth.

I write “abiding tension” because historically, progressive efforts to improve public schools have  ebbed and flowed time and again. Between 1900-1940, progressive ideas and practices flowed across the educational landscape as they did during the 1960s and 1990s, and even now.  Yet progressives’ determined efforts to move classroom practice from traditional, teacher-centered forms of teaching and learning to student-centered approaches ebbed making few inroads into most classrooms (see here and here).  To better understand this ebb and flow of efforts to alter the organization, curriculum, and instruction of public schools toward progressive ends, I am writing this three-part series.

Progressivism in schooling

Historically, many definitions of educational “progressivism” have made it a word nearly bereft of meaning (see here). In looking at the work of Colonel Francis Parker, John Dewey, William Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg, Carleton Washburne–those academics and practitioners who sketched out varied meanings of the concept between the 1880s and 1930s–and contemporary reformers who embraced the central ideas of progressivism such as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, Vito Perrone, Alfie Kohn, there are common tenets and practices of progressivism that do turn up in schools then and now albeit in different incarnations. Look at tenets that the Progressive Education Association  listed in 1919:

Seven Principles of Progressive Education

  1. Freedom for children to develop naturally
  2. Interest as the motive of all work
  3. Teacher as guide, not taskmaster
  4. Change school recordkeeping to promote the scientific study of student development
  5. More attention to all that affects student physical development
  6. School and home cooperation to meet the child’s natural interests and activities
  7. Progressive school as thought leader in educational movements

The PEA closed in 1955.

Founded in 1987, Progressive Education Network (PEN) published its vision of the kind of schooling they sought:

PEN believes that the purpose of education transcends preparation for college or career. Schools nurture citizens in an increasingly diverse democracy. Within the complexities of education theory, practice, policy, and politics, we promote a vision of progressive education for the 21st century that:

  • Engages students as active participants in their learning and in society
  • Supports teachers’ voice as experienced practitioners and growth as lifelong learners
  • Builds solidarity between progressive educators in the public and private sectors
  • Advances critical dialogue on the roles of schools in a democratic society
  • Responds to contemporary issues from a progressive educational perspective
  • Welcomes families and communities as partners in children’s learning
  • Promotes diversity, equity, and justice in our schools and society
  • Encourages progressive educators to play an active role in guiding the educational vision of our society.

Some observers have tried to reduce these often cited features of educational progressivism into fewer categories that capture the essence of the progressive ideology such as:


*Community integrated;

*Democracy and social justice (see here, here,and here).

The overlap in different lists of progressive features in schools are obvious . These tenets and practices have become the defining elements and, over the years, progressive-minded reformers including teachers and principles (also headmasters of some private schools where these ideas and practices have been present for decades) have tried to infiltrate and overcome the traditional structures and practices in U.S. schools and classrooms.

But the arc progressive reforms have followed has been an uneven curve. Past and current reformers had to contend with the existing system of schooling. They had to grapple with the “grammar of schooling” that was in place since the mid-19th century.

What has happened in past and current struggles between educational progressives and conservatives is that conservatives among policymakers and practitioners have adopted particular progressive practices (e.g., small group and independent work, problem solving, project-based instruction, “personalized learning”) and proclaimed that they are progressive while the dominant structures of the age-graded school (e.g., grouping children by age, self-contained classrooms, daily schedule) have remained constant. Over the past century, the emergence of such hybrids during and after surges of progressive ideas and practices have tamped down any public fuss that might have occurred. And made the arc of progressivism in schools both bumpy and potholed.

I take up the school results of pushes for progressive ideas and practices in the U.S. and internationally in Part 2.





Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Schools as Conservative Institutions

Over the years, I have written often about the contradictory obligations that U.S. public schools face. Since the origins of tax-supported schooling in the 19th century and its surging growth in the 20th century through immigration and national reform movements aimed at bringing schools and society closer, two competing responsibilities appeared time and again.

The first was to change students, imbue them with knowledge, skills, and values that they would use to gain personal success and make America a better place to live in. The duty of public schooling as an agent of individual and societal reform took off in the early 20th century as Progressivism and has been in the educational bloodstream ever since.

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

Often conserving such values can be seen in rules posted in nearly every classroom across the nation at the beginning of the school year. For example:


So here is a national institution that has had from its very earliest years conflicting goals–reform and conserve.

Most policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers are far more familiar with  efforts to reform schools over the past century than the persistent urge for conserving family, community, and national practices and values.

From the educational Progressives of the early 20th century to 21st century charter school and “personalized learning” advocates, beliefs that schools then and now failed their students and society and programs and practices had to (and have to) change. Even though there were splits among Progressives during their heyday of reform (1890-1940)–efficiency-minded and pedagogical wings–they sought and achieved major changes in what many reformers sneeringly called “traditional schools.”

Yet there were educational conservatives during these decades who insisted that traditional schools transmit a common curriculum of academic subjects through classroom practices to all children and youth. Such schooling had to remain the norm and not be changed.

Diane Ravitch in Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform resurrects critics William Bagley and Isaac Kandel who from the same pulpit as  Progressives William Kirkpatrick and Harold Rugg, that is, Teachers College, Columbia, voiced sharp objections to the mainstream Progressivism flowing through the nation’s schools. Bagley, Kandel and others wanted an academic curriculum that all, not just some, students took. They wanted children and youth, in Bagley’s words, to acquire knowledge and skills in “industry, accuracy, carefulness,steadfastness, patriotism, culture, cleanliness, truth, self-sacrifice, social service, and personal honor” (Ravitch, p. 285).

Historian of education, Adam Laats in The Other School Reformers points to what occurred in the Tennessee Scopes trial in the mid-1920s over the teaching of evolution in the schools, the struggle over Progressive social studies textbooks in the late-1930s, the battle over progressive ideology controlling district leadership in Pasadena (CA) in the early 1950s, and the conservative attack on school texts used to subvert community and family beliefs in Kanawha County (WVA) during the 1970s. Each episode, Laats asserts, reveals the strong countervailing effort by conservatives to slow down the steamroller of Progressive reform in the 20th century.

And those challenges persist. Today conservatives of all stripes, across ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic status challenge reform-minded boards of education, administrators, and practitioners about both the quality of the schooling their children receive and the values embedded in what their sons and daughters learn. Conservatives today seek more school competition (e.g., establishing charters, issuing vouchers) and transmitting a uniform curriculum (e.g., E.D. Hirsch’s “core knowledge”), teaching patriotism (e.g., controversy over Advanced Placement U.S. History in Colorado), and reduced federal intervention in education and greater role for states and local districts in managing public schools (e.g., Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015). In short, there are many strains of conservatism at play among and between reformers in 2019.

Educational conservatives of all stripes, of course, are not allergic to change. They seek stability and many realize that stability can be maintained only when some changes occur. Called “dynamic conservatism,” examples of cooperation between Progressives and conservatives then and now are evident. No Child Left Behind (2002) joined Congressional Republicans and Democrats to pass the first bill in President George W. Bush’s initial term. Introduction of Common Core Curriculum standards across most states (although many educational conservatives believed it had too many federal thumbprints on it) is another instance of achieving a common course of study for all students. Both conservatives and certain Progressives legislators and donors  have joined forces to expand parental choice (although many current progressives oppose vouchers). “No excuses” schools such as KIPP and Success Academies practice what conservatives have sought in traditional schooling for decades. And Progressive changes in classroom practices, that is, teachers shifting more instruction to small groups and independent work from whole-group teaching and increased use of technologies in classroom lessons, conservatives have embraced.

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.




Filed under Reforming schools

Principals And Test Scores

I read a recent blog from two researchers who assert that principals can improve students’ test scores. The researchers cite studies that support their claim (see below). These researchers received a large grant from the Wallace Foundation to alter their principal preparation program to turn out principals who can, indeed, raise students’ academic achievement.

I was intrigued by this post because as a district superintendent I believed the same thing and urged the 35 elementary and secondary principals I supervised—we met face-to-face twice a year to go over their annual goals and outcomes and I spent a morning or afternoon at the school at least once a year—to be instructional leaders and thereby raise test scores. Over the course of seven years, however, I saw how complex the process of leading a school is, the variation in principals’ performance, and the multiple roles that principals play in his or her school to engineer gains on state tests (see here and here). And I began to see clearly what a principal can and cannot do. Those memories came back to me as I read this post.

First the key parts of the post:

A commonly cited statistic in education leadership circles is that 25 percent of a school’s impact on student achievement can be explained by the principal, which is encouraging for those of us who work in principal preparation, and intuitive to the many educators who’ve experienced the power of an effective leader. It lacks nuance, however, and has gotten us thinking about the state of education-leadership research—what do we know with confidence, what do we have good intuitions (but insufficient evidence) about, and what are we completely in the dark on? ….

Quantifying a school leader’s impact is analytically challenging. How should principal effects be separated from teacher effects, for instance? Some teachers are high-performing, regardless of who leads their school, but effective principals hire the right people into the right grade levels and offer them the right supports to propel them to success.

Another issue relates to timing: Is the impact of great principals observed right away, or does it take several years for principals to grapple with the legacy they’ve inherited—the teaching faculty, the school facilities, the curriculum and textbooks, historical budget priorities, and so on. Furthermore, what’s the right comparison group to determine a principal’s unique impact? It seems crucial to account for differences in school and neighborhood environments—such as by comparing different principals who led the same school at different time points—but if there hasn’t been principal turnover in a long time, and there aren’t similar schools against which to make a comparison, this approach hits a wall.

Grissom, Kalogrides, and Loeb carefully document the trade-offs inherent in the many approaches to calculating a principal’s impact, concluding that the window of potential effect sizes ranges from .03 to .18 standard deviations. That work mirrors the conclusions of Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin, who estimate that principal impacts range from .05 to .21 standard deviations (in other words, four to 16 percentile points in student achievement).

Our best estimates of principal impacts, therefore, are either really small or really large, depending on the model chosen. The takeaway? Yes, principals matter—but we still have a long way to go to before we can confidently quantify just how much.

I thoroughly agree with the researchers’ last sentence. But I did have problems with these assertions supported by two studies they listed.

*That principals are responsible for 25 percent of student gains on test scores (teachers, the report account for an additional 33 percent of those higher test scores). I traced back the source they cited and found these statements:

A 2009 study by New Leaders for New Schools found that more than half of a school’s impact on student gains can be attributed to both principal and teacher effectiveness – with principals accounting for 25 percent and teachers 33 percent of the effect.

The report noted that schools making significant progress are often led by a principal whose role has been radically re-imagined. Not only is the principal attuned to classroom learning, but he or she is also able to create a climate of hard work and success while managing the vital human-capital pipeline.

These researchers do cite studies that support their points about principals and student achievement but cannot find the exact study that found the 25 percent that principals account for in student test scores. Moreover, they omit  studies that show  higher education programs preparing principals who have made a difference in their graduates raising student test scores (see here).

I applaud these researchers on their efforts to improve the university training that principals receive but there is a huge “black box” of unknowns that explain how principals can account for improved student achievement. Opening that “black box” has been attempted in various studies that Jane David and I looked at a few years ago in Cutting through the Hype

The research we reviewed on stable gains in test scores across many different approaches to school improvement all clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement.

Researchers find that what matters most is the context or climate in which the actions occurs. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire. Or the principal might have a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear.

So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that a cluster of factors account for the change.

Over the past forty years, factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teacher collaboration and professional development.

In short, a principal’s instructional leadership combines both direct actions such as observing and evaluating teachers, and indirect actions, such as creating school conditions that foster improvements in teaching and learning. How principals do this varies from school to school–particularly between elementary and secondary schools, given their considerable differences in size, teacher peparation, daily schedule, and in students’ plans for their future. Yes, keeping their eyes on instruction can contribute to stronger instruction; and, yes, even higher test scores. But close monitoring of instruction can only contribute to, not ensure, such improvement.

Moreover, learning to carry out this role as well as all the other duties of the job takes time and experience. Both of these are in short supply, especially in urban districts where principal turnover rates are high.

I am sure these university researchers are familiar with this literature. I wish them well in their efforts to pin down what principals do that account for test score improvement and incorporate that in a program that has effects on what their graduates do as principals in the schools they lead.




Filed under school leaders, testing

Paradoxes of Efficiency in Education (Part 2)

Introducing an innovation to increase efficiency ending up with more inefficiency is a paradox. Most obviously, it occurs in transportation: fuel efficient cars that get more miles per gallon of gas than before end up multiplying demand for more such vehicles  putting more cars on roads spouting gases into the air. And in medicine–see Part 1. Such paradoxes of efficiency occur as well in education.

Are there jobs in which there are few gains in productivity–that is, workers produce more at less cost–yet wages of these “unproductive” workers rise over time. None?


Think of a string quartet playing to a live audience 300 years ago. The number of musicians and the time they needed to play a Beethoven sonata in the late 18th century  haven’t changed, yet today’s quartets playing the same sonata in the same amount of time  make far more than those four musicians centuries ago. Why is that?

Economists William Baumol and William Bowen used that example in their 1966 article to make the point that in certain people-dependent, service-driven, labor-intensive occupations such as the arts, health care, and education there are few productivity increases (e.g., musicians are not paid to play Beethoven sonatas faster nor are teachers paid more to teach history faster). Traditionally, factory and business employers raise wages for workers as a result of new technologies and managerial techniques that increase employee productivity–making and selling more products at less cost than before. Higher wages usually follow gains in worker productivity.

No so for labor-intensive work. The technology used to play for live audiences, teach students, and care for patients leaves hardly any room for labor-saving innovations to increase efficiency since the product is actually the labor of the musician, teacher, and care-giver. But to retain experienced, talented, and hard-working artists, teachers, and health care workers and to keep them playing, teaching, and taking care of the elderly and ill, salaries go up over time. This paradox of efficiency is called “Baumol’s Cost Disease.”

In applying Baumol’s Cost Disease to education, additional paradoxes of efficiency turn up, for example, around class size and applying technologies to teaching and learning.

Class size

A most common move to increase efficiency of teaching in both K-12 and higher education is to make classes larger–one way of skirting “Baumol’s Cost Disease.” As one researcher in the late-1920s put it: Larger classes make for fewer teachers and lower building costs. Increasing the size of classes, then, offers an obvious and tempting means to immediate educational economy.

How large or small class size should be–without losing “effectiveness” however measured–has continually been contested. Researchers at all levels of schooling have done comparison studies since the early 20th century (see here here, here, and here) to determine exactly what class size is both efficient and effective. Research findings in the early 21st century remain contested for the simple reason that while the costs of providing teachers in classrooms drops as a district increases class size, questions of teacher effectiveness in achieving desired student outcomes arise time and again (see here and here).

Historically, class sizes in urban schools in the early 20th century ran to 50-plus students and have fallen each decade until they range in the 20s to 30s.  In most K-12 instances, both parents and teachers sought smaller class size, often to sizes below 20 students per class because they believed that smaller classes would give teachers time to build relationships with students, work with individuals, and boost students’ academic outcomes. As class sizes dropped, costs for hiring additional teachers and finding space for those smaller classes rose. And that is the paradox of efficiency that policymakers have found themselves in repeatedly when it comes to class size.

Another bind in which policymakers find themselves is not knowing what the exact number of students per class is best insofar as measures of academic achievement. A tradeoff between efficiency and effectiveness continues to plague policymakers although most practitioners and parents urge smaller class size than now exists.

In higher education, increasing institutional efficiency in the face of rising tuition costs and low faculty teaching loads was to have more lectures for hundreds of students in first two years of college and reserve seminars for 15-25 students in the final years of an undergraduate’s career and graduate school. And now to increase efficiency, offering  online courses is believed to reduce costs and provide access to professors.

Increasing class size through scheduling large lectures in introductory courses, reserving seminars for advanced students and increasing online instruction–are efficiency measures that often end up in students frustrated in having little contact with professors, questioning the effectiveness of larger classes and online learning while turning off students to the course content they seek to learn. So decreasing or increasing class size in both K-12 schools and higher education lead to greater inefficiencies.

New technologies

And, of course, there is increased use of new technologies, the all-purpose solution to inefficiency.  There is little doubt, even among skeptics, that computerization of the administrative side of schooling–personnel actions, budgeting, purchasing, and collecting student data–have been streamlined and desks piled high with records and folders have decreased yet the numbers of administrators both in K-12 schools and in higher education have increased. Similarly, on the curricular and instructional side of schooling, the paradox of efficiency has become apparent. Examples abound.

*Online courses in K-12 and higher education have been touted as being cost-efficient and cost-effective for decades but proliferation of such courses have raised questions among current and prospective students if that kind of instruction and teacher contact is what they want. The belly-flop of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and its high attrition has added to those doubts as has the continuing spread of online classes and numbers of students who fail to complete courses. Technologically induced efficiency leads to larger inefficiencies in dropouts and frustrated teachers and students.

*With standardized tests increasingly being taken online, districts have spent additional funds beyond buying devices and new software (and maintaining both before they sink into obsolescence) and more dollars to train students and teachers to use online tests (see here and here).

*”Personalized learning” is the Holy Grail of efficient teaching–each lesson adapted to the strengths and weaknesses of each student. This has been the dream of school reformers for decades. With the flow of tablets, laptops, and phones into schools for instructional use, the day of efficiency has dawned. Here is where the paradox kicks in.

In the quest to make teaching and learning faster and better, a wealth of technological devices and software have been mobilized and put into classrooms. In the name of efficiency and effectiveness, current students have far more access to technologies than students 35 years ago when they were initially introduced. Yet test scores and other measures of academic achievement have not climbed as more machines and software have spread through U.S. classrooms. Nor have the amounts of money being spent on these new technologies decreased as they have become ubiquitous. Another instance of the quest for efficient teaching and learning leading to inefficiency.




Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

Paradoxes of Efficiency (Part 1)





I have been reading Edward Tenner’s The Efficiency Paradox. He got me thinking about paradoxical thinking that is rife throughout education and medicine. But before getting to either of these, I need to make clear what efficiency is–Tenner’s definition–and what the paradox of efficiency is. Here goes.

According to Tenner, efficiency is: “…producing goods, providing services or information, or processing transactions with a minimum of waste (xii).” To listen to Tenner describe his book, see here.

In education, “efficiency” came to mean teachers teaching more, faster, and better than they had before. Large class sizes in the early 20th century (e.g., 50-plus elementary school students in a class) were reduced in the name of efficiency to achieve more productive teaching, that is, faster, and better teaching.

Definitions and examples aside, what are paradoxes of efficiency?

Consider the introduction of coal as fuel to replace the more expensive oils that were used. The idea was to use coal to heat homes, power railroad engines, run generators  because coal had become technologically more available through improved mining and ship[ing to factories and home. It also burned with higher heat. It was far more efficient than previous fuels.

But as coal became increasingly available and used through industrial society, more and more coal was mined and sent to industrial plants and home causing, over decades, pollution and respiratory diseases. Coal was economically efficient in the short run but became, with increased demand for more and more coal, inefficient by damaging the environment and harming humans. This paradox was discovered in the mid-19th century and is called Jevins Paradox.

The paradox applies to other energy sources such as gasoline for cars and nuclear power increasing consumer demand for the fuels and damaging the environment over time.

Now, consider paradoxes in the practice of medicine.

Take Electronic Medical Records (EMR). Introduced to decrease administrative burdens doctors faced (e.g., writing on patient charts, what the  patient’s condition is and writing directions to nurses for what medicine and therapies patient needed) so that physicians could spend more time with patients to diagnose and treat them. EMR promised clearer communication–recall stories of doctors writing illegibly–among and between primary care doctors, specialists, nurses, and pharmacists.

In recent studies, however, EMR has neither reduced time spent on administrative tasks or freed doctors to give more time to patients. When one counts in the additional time, doctors have to spend in learning EHR and then thinking through the codes that will be reimbursed by insurers in making judgments about treatment–all of that consumes time that doctors had not considered when adopting EMR. There’s more.

According to Tenner (p.170): For every hour of direct contact [with patients], doctors spend two hours at the office filling out out EMR forms and completing other paperwork….

In emergency rooms, doctors may need to perform four thousand mouse clicks during a ten hour shift.. or on the average of one [click] every ten seconds (p.170).

Thus, as Tenner, concludes when it comes to applying new technologies as EMR to the practice of medicine to increase efficiency and effectiveness, “[E]fficiency is difficult to implement efficiently. It takes more time, money, and failures than advocates expect” (p. 168).

There are, of course, positives to EMR. Tenner points out that these electronic records often build in checklists of practice in treating patients that signal doctors what needs to be done for handling a diabetic patient, or one recovering from breast cancer surgery, or side-effects of particular drugs.

Whether these pluses outweigh the negatives, at this point the supposed efficiencies gained through introducing and using EMRs has increased inefficiencies in many doctors’ use of time. A paradox that continues to puzzle health care experts.

Another paradox is the increased efficiency in providing end-of-life cancer treatments or prolonged dementia care may create benefits for those individuals receiving treatment, but policymakers and the larger society may decide that because there is a limited pot of money available to health providers, that money efficiently spent on end-of-life-care is inefficient, on a different scale since that money may be better spent on other treatments that create more benefits for larger numbers of people needing health care.Hence, efficiency in treatment for those nearing the end of their lives may be considered inefficient when considered against the health care needs of others.

Part 2 takes up the paradoxes of efficiency in education.










Filed under Reforming schools