It seems to me that the goals of Education Reform are primarily to bring the increases in productivity (and cost reductions) seen in other industries to the education industry. The greatest obstacle to the effort to cut the cost of education is teacher salaries. The cost of education cannot be cut until the cost of teaching is cut. The Education Reform movement seeks paths to cutting the cost of teaching.
While technology has allowed for amazing radical increases in productivity in nearly every other industry, teaching is still, for the most part, done exactly as it was done in pre-industrial times: face-to-face with a personal relationship between a professional teacher and a limited number of students. For there to be any improvement in productivity (and reduction in cost), this model must be broken.
Education Reform is pursuing four paths to increase productivity (and thereby reduce costs).
1. The de-professionalization of teaching. Teachers are professionals. They are expected to work with minimal supervision and direction. They are expected to use their expertise, judgement, and talent to respond improvisationally to student needs. In the Education Reform model, however, teachers are expected to deliver standardized lessons prepared centrally. They can make some small prescribed variations within a prescribed range. The best model for this is how professional bankers have been replaced by non-professionals, sitting in cube farms, wearing headsets, and completing loan application forms by working through a script on a computer screen. The script includes what to say if the customer says this or if the customer says that. Based on this model it isn't hard to imagine non-professionals in front of a classroom delivering a scripted lesson with scripted responses to expected student questions.
A trained and experienced professional teacher wouldn't be needed for this task. I bet it could be done by any college graduate with a five-week crash course and plenty of mentoring and support. Of course, all of that mentoring and support would really make for a long work day, so this would be a job for a young person and they would burn out after just a couple years. Education Reform's support for Teach for America has some very clear purpose. It's a pilot program for how they want to see all teacher training done.
This doesn't actually increase productivity, but it does reduce costs. A novice teacher is paid significantly less than an experienced one. Moreover, there would be no need to offer higher salaries for experienced teachers. All of the teachers - regardless of experience - would be paid the new teacher salaries. Without the promise of a career with a growing salary, no one would enter teaching as a career. It would just be a job that people took for a year or two between college and their real career. Or is could be a temp job for older workers between jobs.
2. Online Education. It is a short hop from non-professionals delivering scripted lessons to lessons on video-on-demand. I suspect they will sell the clear benefit: individualized instruction. Students get exactly the lessons they need exactly when they need them. The students take a pre-test, then the appropriate curriculum is provided with a quiz at the end of each section. Fail the quiz and the curriculum is queued up again. Pass the quiz and move on to the next section. There could even be greater depth and challenge available (click here to learn more about the causes of the War of 1812).
This would represent a HUGE step forward in productivity. With video-on-demand or other forms of recorded instruction, the ratio of students to teachers can explode from 150:1 to nearly infinite. Think of it. Every single student in the state of Washington could have the same Algebra teacher. With Common Core Standards, every single student in the whole country could have the same Algebra teacher. Every other Algebra teacher could be fired. Even the one giving the lesson could be fired after that first year. That's a strong argument for Common Core Standards, isn't it?
Students could, of course, get additional support through a call center or through online chat. The "teachers" they connect with that way aren't professionals either. They will just work through a script just like any other call center worker. There will need to be a professional teacher or two somewhere in the building for those calls that cannot be resolved by the call center staff working off the script, but no more than a handful to take care of thousands and thousands of students.
3. Investment. It's going to cost a lot of money to make these steps forward in productivity in education. There are hardware costs. There will have to be work station computers that allow each student to access the online instruction. There will have to servers to store and deliver the instruction. There will have to be phone lines and call centers. Even more investment will be needed in content and software. All of the lessons will have to be written and performed. All of the variations too - every content path that could result from the student clicking on the "I don't get it" button or the "Tell me more" button. Don't worry. There are lots of corporations who are ready to provide the hardware, the software, and the content - for a slice of that sweet, sweet government pie.
4. Centralization. All of the lessons are stored on a central server. All of the variations, too. All of the support questions go to call center. All of the results from the pre-tests, quizes, and final assessments go to the central server also. Everything is controlled from the center and all of the data is collected by the center. The center has all of the authority and all of the expertise. There is no one to question the central authority - temp workers do not challenge the corporation.
The End of Education
Imagine the future of teaching if we follow the Education Reform path. Students enter the school building and sit at their desks. There can be dozens of desks in a single room. The students don headphones and start their lessons. There is a proctor in the room, mostly to keep order but also to provide minor tech support. The students access their individualized instruction modules and grind away for 90 minutes at their video-on-demand lessons. Then they all work on some project together for an hour or so (we still need those "21st Century skills"). The proctors facilitate and organize the group project exercises, but the students are expected to work things out for themselves and not rely on the proctor for support. The results of the projects are all virtual and are transmitted to the central site. Then it is back to video instruction for 90 minutes, then lunch, then a final 90-minute video instruction period and that's the end of the day. A half-hour of P.E. could be stuck in there somewhere. At any moment of the day students in a single room could be working on reading, writing, math, science, world languages, or social studies. They could all be working at a variety of grade levels.
Some classes, of course, would have to be actual hands-on instruction. I'm thinking of the Career and Technical Education courses, the science labs (probably - at least until the technology improves), the arts (music, fine art, dance, etc.), and perhaps a couple others. Not many.
I know that you're thinking that surely there is some need for the traditional style of instruction. There needs to be some open discussion of big ideas among the students and lead by the teacher. Nope. The virtual teacher can cover that ground. If students need to be brought together, it can be done virtually in an online chat room. They don't have to be in the same room - they don't have to be in the same school. With State Standards they don't have to be in the same District and with Common Core Standards they don't even have to be in the same state.
There is, of course, a need for students to have some adult in the school who is interested in them as people, follows up on their academic progress, and has a relationship with them. I know that the proctor shares space with them for much of the day and is sure to have a relationship with the students in the room, but the proctor isn't a professional expected to perform professional services. So let's add relationship managers to the school staffs - one for every 96 students. If each student meets with their relationship manager for a half-hour, then the manager can meet with twelve students a day. That means that the manager can meet with each student every 8 days - twice a month. That's a pretty close relationship, wouldn't you say? Garfield High School would need about 20 relationship managers.
With the lowered cost of this style of instruction there's no reason that school could not be year-round.
Since so much of the work is done online, it would be easy for students to work from home on days when they are sick or to work from home to make up missed assignments.
What would a school like this cost to run? After the fixed costs of the technology, I think it would be the same or less than schools now cost. The proctors would earn about $30,000 and the relationship managers would earn about $60,000 - and that's for year-round school. The call center staff would earn as much as call center staff in any other business, about $25,000. It's very possible that this sort of instruction would be just as effective as schools are now.
Do I have it wrong? Have I misread the goals of Education Reform? I honestly think this is the Education Reform dream come true. While we might find it sedentary, sterile and isolating, it does sound like it could be effective. And steps are taken to mitigate those downsides: daily P.E., daily group project time, and the twice-monthly meeting with the relationship manager.