Posted by: crudbasher | May 25, 2012

The Empty School: A Thought Experiment

In the 1961-1962 school year, the US spent $2,808 per student in adjusted 2007 dollars. In the 2007-2008 school year we spent $10,441 per student. (source)

What. The. Heck.

If you are a public school teacher, can you account for the money? Do you have 4 times more resources in your classroom than a teacher in 1961? It seems unlikely. So where did it all go?

Here’s a clue: (click for original source)

Wow that is a huge increase in staffing! They must all be new teachers to reduce the student to teacher ratio right? Well…some are.

So that’s good right? The trouble is, that doesn’t account for all the money. Student to teacher ratio decreased from 27 to 17 which is about 38%. Funding has increased by 380%.

There is a vast amount of new job types in the school system now that aren’t in the classroom. Call them overhead. A public school isn’t like a regular company that has to balance sales with overhead. If you give them more money, they will spend it. There are always more people who can be hired, empires to build. Do we really need all of this extra overhead? What if we didn’t have it at all?

The Empty School

In 1968 theater director Peter Brook published a famous book called The Empty Space. In it, he tried to figure out what was the essence of theater. What he determined was that you didn’t need anything but a performer and an audience. You didn’t need a building, or a script, or makeup, or costumes, or directors, or catering. This is also a good description of learning. I remember when I was a kid I used to enjoy talking with my grandfather. He lived in England and would tell me stories of World War II and other things. I was captivated by his stories. I had a desire to learn and he had a desire to teach me. Is it just that simple?

Too often we confuse education with learning. Education is a process, learning is what we hope happens during that process. It is that simple. We keep adding more and more things to the process but the learning isn’t improving. I believe that is because the purpose of the public education system is not to have children learn things, it is to sustain itself. It’s like cancer in a way. Cancer is composed of cells in the body that have malfunctioned in some way and now serve no purpose besides to grow. Over time as it gets larger it starts to interfere with the body and destroy it’s vital functions. I know it sounds harsh, but I think the analogy fits. Just the other day I read about a school nurse who refused to let a student have their asthma inhaler during an attack because the mother had not updated the signed consent form for that year. Any system that is so rigid as to let a student die right in front of them because of a signature has lost it’s way. (the student was ok btw)

The Thought Experiment

Ok so follow me on this. Let’s say we have no system of public education in the US at all. We are starting completely from scratch. Like SpaceX we are rethinking how to accomplish this mission. They got rid of ties and changed their mindset.

Let’s start with the student and the teacher. If the funding for education was divided evenly to all the students, each student would have about $10,000 of money with which to buy an education. Can you hire a private teacher for a year with that? Actually if that private teacher was to work with about 5-6 students, that works out pretty well. Yes but don’t we need a school? Why? You just need a student and a teacher, like my grandfather and myself. You can do a lot of that online and then just meet face to face when necessary. Of course there are some specialized facilities we might want but they can be shared with many students. They won’t all be using them at the same time right? I would think that many businesses would be interested in sponsoring some of these facilities. What if one of the parents was an engineer, perhaps their company could provide some spaces on a part time basis. Perhaps take your kid to work day would happen often and would be useful?

Or we can look at the current model of grouping students together. For all you public school teachers who read this let me ask this question: If you had a class of 30 students today, that would be 300,000 dollars on average. If you didn’t have any administration, no state requirements, no standardized testing, no core curriculum and no rules, what could you do? What could you do with nearly complete freedom to be just a teacher? The only constraint on you would be that the parents at the end of the school year will determine if you will continue.

Would you do it? Let me know in the comments.

Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. – Ronald Reagan


  1. Fascinating! – thanks, crudbasher for this excellent article.

    • Thanks Keith, I get inspired once in a while!! 🙂

  2. […] just read this post by Andrew Barras, aka “crudbasher”, and was inspired to write this comment, which, […]

  3. Andrew, what was going to be a comment, turned into a post. Here is the link Your article was excellent as always.

  4. […] background-position: 50% 0px ; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 4:07 […]

  5. […] The second, and in my mind much more interesting type of company are those that are catering to teachers, parents and students directly. It’s a more disruptive model certainly and has the risk of incurring the wrath of the leviathan school system. Even so, this is where the real transformative change will come from. For example there is a company called Educreations and they have a system where anyone can make lessons with a electronic whiteboard and other tools. This doesn’t require a IT department, instructional design department, programming skills or textbooks. It just requires a person who wants to teach, and students who want to learn. As I have said before, that’s all you need for learning to happen. (see The Empty School: A Thought Experiment) […]

  6. […] The Empty School […]

  7. […] (see The Empty School: A Thought Experiment) […]

  8. I would argue that Educreations, while good, isn’t learning. It’s teaching.

    As for me, I’ll gladly the money and teach and lets the parents decide.

    It gets tougher in middle school. In the current model, you need 4 content teachers. That’s $2500 per student for each teacher. To make my salary and benefits, I would need about 40 students. Wait, this does work! I could easily pull 3 more awesome teachers together and do this.

    Wait, specialist classes would be tough. No, it doesn’t. Gym class, with a bit of work, we could do. I love photography, that’s art class. Another teacher I’d pull in is a wizard with woodworking. That’s shop. Media? Hell, every kid would have a laptop and be publishing. Music is the only challenge but we could pull it off.

    It works. BRILLIANT! Now, how do we go about making this happen? How can I start my own public school with tax dollars?

  9. […] I have talked at length that in order for learning to occur, you just need a source of information and someone willing to learn it. You don’t need a student wellness center, a dorm, a cafeteria, nor a Deputy Associate Dean of Diversity Coordination and Facilitation (I made that last one up. Or did I?). (see The Empty School: A Thought Experiment) […]

  10. […] to more of a Montessori style school? I wrote one of my favorite blog posts last year called The Empty School which seems to apply to this […]

  11. […] Now that’s pretty cool. Low overhead permits fans to directly support their favorite artists. So the big question is: can something like this work for teachers? You don’t actually need a building to learning something. (see The Empty School: A Thought Experiment) […]

  12. […] a post that I think is really good. I had a brainstorm a few years ago when I wrote a post called The Empty School: A Thought Experiment. In it, I boiled down the essence of learning to the […]

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