Optimize Prime

To content | To menu | To search

Tag - education

Entries feed - Comments feed

Thursday, August 31 2006

Things I Didn't Know About The History Of Schools

  • In 1930, there were 260,000 schools in the USA (including approximately 150,000 ones with only a single teacher). In 2000, there were less than 95,000 schools almost none with only a single teacher. The average number of students per school size grew from 89 to 502.
  • The number of support staff per student has increased three-fold since 1950, from 1/83 to 1/27.
  • The number of teachers per student has increased two-fold since 1950, from 1/26 to 1/12.
  • The average number of years of experience for a teacher has increased 7 years since 1966, from 8 to 15. The average age of a teacher has also increased by 7 years over the same time period, from 37 to 44.

The statistics are from School Figures, which is published by the Hoover Institute. I hadn't heard of them before, but from reading their choice of statistics it's clear they're in the privatization/school-choice crowd. The idea of school choice had an appeal for me at one point, when I still believed that what made a school good could be measured by tests. School choice advocates are entirely right that if you place enough emphasis on competing for students via test scores and the school ratings based on them, you'll see scores go up. The problem with that approach is that any kind of test scores are basically broken as a measure of the success of schools.

For the first part, it's difficult to say whether test scores are truly rising or falling at all. There are a huge number of confounding factors involving demographic trends and changes in the tests themselves. Secondly, even assuming we could correctly tease out the true change in test scores, there's very little evidence that rising test scores mean better educated students. It's difficult to deny that students who score 1600 on the SATs are much more likely to be well educated and thoughtful than those who score 900. But as those 1600 point scoring students would tell you, corelation is not causation! It might be that on average tall students score higher on their SATs, but that doesn't mean giving students stilts will improve test scores.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I don't think much of the book, although it has a lot of pretty graphs. They've managed to pull together a very large and impressive number of statistics, a few of which are meaningful and most of which are not. Other offenses include, but are not limited to: extrapolating trends from as few as two data points, representing public opinion polls as meaningful measures of something more than people's opinions, and failing to consider alternate explanations for trends. I shouldn't pick on them too much, since all of these are common crimes, but I wish for a book on the history and facts of education that I could actually recommend at some point.

Tuesday, August 22 2006

The $100k Plan

Teachers are paid like mid-level administrators and given a job for skilled professionals. They raise our children every weekday. For other equivalently important jobs, we offer high salaries to attract the most qualified. Salaries are important both for the money and for the status that comes along with it.

It is difficult to recruit the best to a difficult job with low pay and status. In many places we simply can't find enough qualified teachers, let alone enough good ones. The solution to this problem is obvious, and has been proposed by many other than myself: pay our teachers more. So let's imagine a new kind of school where teachers were paid as professionals on par with doctors, lawyers, or engineers.

Starting salary at these new schools will be $100,000, compared to a current national average of $30,719. Public schools spent an average of $8,287 per child in 2004. That means each teacher must teach about 12 students to cover their salary. It's a general rule of thumb that overhead (work space, shared support staff, basic supplies, benefits) is at least 1/3 of salary; let's say it's 1/2, giving 18 students/teacher. Allowing for pay raises similar to the current system (teacher salaries reach an average of $46,597) brings that number to 27. We will ruthlessly cut anything else from our budget, because there simply won't be sufficient funds. A much lower teacher/student ratio requires structural changes to the way schools are organized.

The main consequence of this lower teacher/student ratio is a large reduction in the number of class hours available per week to each student. It simply won't be possible to fill schedules with 6 classes every day of the week. Instead, the school would therefore have to be structured much more like a college than a traditional high school. Students would take fewer classes concurrently, and classes would commonly meet only 2-3 times per week instead of every day. It also means more serious work required out of class, both by the students and the teachers responsible for them.

The low ratio also requires us to keep the schools as small as possible, so that natural social effects can help control disciplinary problems. Smaller schools require fewer support staff and less specialized equipment as well, which is good because we're not going to have a lot of extra money.

The smaller number of teachers means that each teacher is much more individually important. All other highly paid professionals have an apprenticeship style training program, and teachers would benefit from the same. Luckily, the smaller number of teachers also means that we don't have to hire as many new teachers per year, which should make it easier to provide quality training.

An incomplete list of other consequences which require thought:

  • Small schools have limited facilities and social opportunities by nature, so perhaps a coalition would be required
  • Vouchers? Charter schools? Reform of current public schools?
  • What does the distribution of teachers of subjects look like?
  • Who decides when and with what staff to create one of these schools? How is money allocated?

(Thanks to Steve for the conversation that sparked this idea and feedback)