A few days ago, I highlighted an article that argued that the problem with public education was that there was not enough expertise and, heaven forbid, enough state level bureaucrats managing the infrastructure. I pointed out that this is often the argument of technocrats in favor of failing public institutions: The problem is not the institution, they argue, or its incentives but it just needs the right people in charge. I argued that, probably like GM, all the expertise in the world was not going to turn around an organization whose DNA had gone senescent.
Alex Tabarrok comes at this issue from a different angle, but with similar results. Too many of the examples highlighted of successes in public education rely on a super-teacher or super-administrator who overcomes all the organization problems in his/her school to create a success story, one that is usually fleeting and tends to die when that individual leaves (Jaime Escalante is a great example - most of his math program improvements died after he left).
Tabarrok argues that you can't just keep hoping for more of these unique individuals who can overcome a myriad of bureaucratic obstacles. You have to reinvent the system so that average capability, poorly motivated workers can still get a good result for students. I know some will be scared off by the analogy, but this is the kind of thing that franchise restaurants do very well -- plug low-skill, sometimes poorly motivated employees into a system that successfully provides consistent, predictable service for customers.
What we need to save inner-city schools, and poor schools
everywhere, is a method that works when the teachers aren't heroes.
Even better if the method works when teachers are ordinary people,
poorly paid and ill-motivated - i.e. the system we have today.
In Super Crunchers,
Ian Ayres argues that just such a method exists. Overall, Super
Crunchers is a light but entertaining account of how large amounts of
data and cheap computing power are improving forecasting and decision
making in social science, government and business. I enjoyed the
book. Chapter 7, however, was a real highlight.
Ayres argues that large experimental studies have shown that the teaching method which works best is Direct Instruction (here and here
are two non-academic discussions which summarizes much of the same
academic evidence discussed in Ayres). In Direct Instruction the
teacher follows a script, a carefully designed and evaluated script.
As Ayres notes this is key:
DI is scalable. Its
success isn't contingent on the personality of some uber-teacher....You
don't need to be a genius to be an effective DI teacher. DI can be
implemented in dozens upon dozens of classrooms with just ordinary
teachers. You just need to be able to follow the script.
to what you might think, the data also show that DI does not impede
creativity or self-esteem. The education establishment, however, hates
DI because it is a threat to the power and prestige of teaching, they
prefer the model of teacher as hero. As Ayres says "The education
establishment is wedded to its pet theories regardless of what the
evidence says." As a result they have fought it tooth and nail so that
"Direct Instruction, the oldest and most validated program, has
captured only a little more than 1 percent of the grade-school
I don't know anything about DI and haven't seen the data and so can't comment on its effectiveness. But I can say that if it works, there is no way it will be adopted in public schools. Public school systems are run first for the administration bureaucracy, second for the teachers, and only about third for the students. Anything that serves the latter but reduces the power of the former will never succeed, again because the incentives are not there for better performance. Only school competition will allow such new models to be tried.