Undersupported (possibly irresponsible) But Mostly Confident Predictions About the Future of Education

My thinking about teaching has changed drastically in the last two years. I started my research into education as a (sort of) tech bro who got into TFA and was generally interested in education research and reform. Personally, I had always hated school and most of my actual education was done online through wikipedia, coursera, Khan academy, blogs, etc.

I got very good at learning quickly and independently through the internet and many of my friends did the same, so I thought that the future of education had to be built around online, personalized education. It made so much sense to me given my own experience, and, at the time, I didn’t do much to fully consider how this could go wrong. I was heavily influenced by GMU Econ bloggers like Bryan Caplan and Alex Tabarrok as well as the work of JPAL in synthesizing the research on education technology.

From an outsider’s perspective the research is very promising, there are massive effect sizes from many studies and our ability to make responsive AI to personalize the educational experience has been quickly increasing. But…then I became a teacher.

Anecdotally, personalized online education gets a bad rap in education circles. Bad teachers often throw students onto Khan academy with no investment and no accountability systems. Students end up clicking through videos, spending time on YouTube when the teacher isn’t watching, and not learning much. There seems to be some unspoken agreement between most teachers that most students can’t benefit from online education. There seems to be some assumption that the 30-kids-in-1-teacher’s-classroom-model is almost essential to student learning. Without having a personal relationship to a teacher who is constantly motivating you to learn, most kids won’t engage enough in the content to retain anything.

So in my first semester I came in with a lot of optimism about personalized education, but the classroom management needed for successful utilization of online individualized learning was so difficult that I quickly lost my optimism. I would plan elaborate lessons with the aid of Khan academy for one of my class periods, but my students would do whatever they could to game it and they would end up not learning much. For about 3 months I thought that the optimism of academics like Alex Tabarrok about online education was ultimately misguided, just an opinion of someone who never faced the difficulties of working in K12 Urban education.

Now I’m in a sort of middle ground. A group of teachers left my school mid-year. Students were left without teachers they had grown to appreciate. And even though I work in an exceptionally functional and productive urban high school — almost every school I know of in the area has worse turnover rates — our students still got used to the insane revolving door of teachers. In my school teaching there for 3 years makes you look like a veteran because so many teachers only stay for one year.

The problem is that I can’t really blame the teachers. A teacher salary in Nashville still leaves you cash strapped and if you have any skill then you have likely have considerably more profitable alternatives elsewhere. So this tends to leave three types of teachers in the classroom: (1) ones in and out of schools who are still investigating less stressful and more lucrative options outside of education; (2) exceptional teachers who are so committed to students and their profession that they will never leave even despite more lucrative options; and (3) awful teachers who float between schools, are unlikely to get jobs elsewhere, and are unlikely to last long in the high stress environments of successful schools. (side note, worth looking into the Baumol effect which partly describes a related issue and effectively ties it into the problems of cost disease in education)

The issue as I see it is that US education sucks and it is partly due to bad teaching and bad administration. Part of that is because teaching is a relatively underpaid and low-status position relative to the probable importance of it to creating a well functioning democracy (now I know that there are good arguments for why teachers aren’t underpaid but for the most part we want really smart, capable people in the position but we can’t afford them and that’s enough of an argument for me to stand on). But you aren’t going to keep the aforementioned type (1) teachers without paying them a lot more, and you can’t build a successful education system on type (2) or (3) teachers because there aren’t enough type (2)’s and the type (3)’s shouldn’t be in the classroom in the first place. So what do we do?

Well, I think it is time to consider bailing on the 30-students-to-one teacher model altogether. Transfer money and focus into building the systems and AI needed to create exceptional personalized learning software, and use technology to do whatever we possibly can to increase the effective student-to-teacher ratio so that we can afford to keep a smaller number of exceptional teachers in the system while getting rid of the turnover cycle and the slow drip of incapable teachers into the system who sometimes abuse it.

So while I used to think that the implementation of online, personalized learning was too difficult, I’m now betting on the ability to build the systems, cultures, and accountability to try to successfully and broadly implement personalized online learning. It seems much more likely and less costly than continuing to find, train, and retain teachers for the 30-to-1 model.

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