I remember reading a study a few years ago that said that men’s mental capacity tends to peak at age 38. Well, today I turn 39 so this post could be kind of interesting.
If you listen to some education reformers, all teachers unions, and nearly all politicians the big problem in public education is a lack of money. Now, when I say problem, what I am referring to (as they do) is a lack of improvement in standardized test scores in the US. Right or wrong this is how most people measure progress in student learning. I think this is a bad way to do it but let’s roll with it for now.
When you have any kind of system, it initially works fairly badly. With iterations, it will become more efficient. We call that the learning curve. For example, Boeing recently boosted production of their 777 airliner. You can see why here:
The rate previously reached the seven-per-month mark in July 1997-Feb. 1998, Aug. 1998-Oct. 1999 and Nov. 2006-May 2010. Boeing said it “incorporated lessons learned” from the previous increases and, this time around, reduced production flow from 52 to 49 days from start to finish. “Days of flow were removed in wing spar, service-ready wing and final body join areas,” said Boeing. “The flow reduction is attributed to increased productivity in those areas.” Loftis added, “We are experiencing some of the all-time-best metrics.”
Most assembly line operations tend to become much more efficient over time but there comes a point where further improvement is harder and more expensive. This is called the Law of Diminishing Returns.
The tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved.
So can we apply this to the public education system? Well, first of all, it seems obvious it is an assembly line type operation. Children are processed in regular batches at regular intervals. The line workers (teachers) each focus on a particular specialty. Remember though the education system performed a miracle about 100 years ago. It transformed a largely agricultural society (US) into an industrial powerhouse the world had never seen. It produced vast quantities of products not just for the US, but the whole world. To be clear then, this revolution would not have been possible without the education system.
So why all the fuss about education reform? Well I think it’s because of the Law of Diminishing Returns.
This graph explains what is happening.
We are spending vast, and ever increasing amounts of money and not seeing any improvement in test scores. I think you could double spending (again) and not see any change.
So why is this? I think there are several reasons.
- Students aren’t buying into the notion that they need a good education to be successful.
- School work is much less interesting than all the other distractions in their life.
- The school system was designed standardized in order to be very scalable. This very quality make it very resistant to perturbations (reforms).
- An assembly line produces a standardized product. This is good when you are making factory workers, but not so good for making creative types for a knowledge based economy.
Feeding a bear doesn’t make it drive a car, it just makes it bigger. If we keep feeding the school system it will get more technology, more buildings, more administration, but student achievement will stay about the same. The system has reached the point of diminishing returns.
“And now, it’s time for something completely different. ” – Monty Python
So how did I do? Have I lost my mind due to advancing age?