Monday, March 10, 2014

Hoxby on Education Reform

The basic student experience in many schools is quite similar to what it was a half-century ago. Te school day is divided into periods, each period is a subject, each subject has a teacher, and it all happens in a building that has been there for decades. Nowadays there's some additional technology mixed in. But perhaps, for at least some schools, a bigger shake-up is called for? Caroline Hoxby offers some thoughts in "The Global Achievement Gap," published in the journal Defining Ideas from the Hoover Institution. In  my own reading, her essay suggests to me three potentially useful ways of shaking up public schools.

1) More extensive use of information technology.

Hoxby's example here is the "Rocketship" schools that operate in Santa Clara, California--that is, in the middle of Silicon Valley. She writes:

The Rocketship schools are hybrid schools that serve students who are largely poor and Hispanic or black. They attain some of the highest scores for students from such backgrounds among California schools. Their students spend part of each day in a "learning lab" in which they work on computers. The schools also use computer-based technology for curricular enrichment, diagnosis, and tracking progress. (Although the Rocketship schools are charter schools and largely admit students via lottery, they have not yet been evaluated using lottery-based methods. Thus, some of their high performance may be due to motivated or able students' self-selecting into them. However, what really interests us here is their financial model.)
The Rocketship schools have current per-pupil expenditures equal to 79 percent of that of traditional public schools in their county: $7,492 for Rocketship and $9,463 for the other schools. How do they manage this? First, their ratio of pupils to classroom teachers is 30.5 while the traditional public schools' is 21.6. Thus, Rocketship schools need only two teachers for every three teachers whom the traditional public schools need. According to their accounts, this entire reduction is attained by means of computers being used for mundane instruction and practice of skills. Second, Rocketship schools spend a much lower share of their budget on the wages and salaries of non-teachers: 12.7 percent as opposed to 32.6 percent. This is largely because they have approximately one non-teaching staff member for every three such people at traditional public schools. The schools’ explanation is that they have less need for administrators and support staff because technology performs many of the tracking and paperwork tasks that such people perform in traditional public schools.
Another benefit of integrating information technology is that it allows 

2) Find "master teachers," pay them accordingly,  and restructure the rest of the teaching staff.

There is now a solid body of empirical evidence suggesting that most of the best teachers are born, not made. In other words, the best teachers are identifiable by the comparatively strong education gains of their students even in the first year or two of teaching. While teachers of all skill levels do improve with experience, those at the top remain at the top.  One recent study found that if a teacher in the bottom 5% is replaced by an average teacher, the average student in that classroom will see a salary gain of $80,000 over their lifetime. As Hoxby points out, schools that have flexibility often hire teachers in two categories: highly skilled master teachers and then a number of less-experienced teachers.  The result is that the school can pay salaries to the master teachers salaries similar to those received by "some private sector occupations that are filled by people with baccalaureate or more education (but not a professional degree or PhD): accountants, compensation and benefits managers, computer programmers, editors, landscape architects and surveyors, property managers, occupational therapists, regional planners, public relations specialists, and buyers for major retail stores." Hoxby writes: 

"One might wonder how it is possible that US public schools could, within their current budgets, pay teachers in a manner that is so competitive with private sector rewards. The main explanation is that although high value-added teachers are currently underpaid, low value-added teachers who have high seniority, master's degrees, and other paper credentials are systemically overpaid relative to their alternative jobs. They have no incentive to leave teaching, therefore. They also have no incentive to improve their value-added. Low value-added teachers absorb so much of the total compensation budget that little is left for high value-added starting teachers, who are not only underpaid if they do teach but who tend to leave teaching as a result." 

3) Expand the school day and the school year. 
The standard school day, sending the kids home at 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, is clearly structured around families that have a parent staying home. The same with the standard school year, in which families are presumed to have ways to look after their children for 10-12 weeks in the summer.  Again, schools with flexibility tend to experiment with 8-5 school days and with year-round school calendars. Hoxby again: 
"Traditional public schools spend considerable effort ensuring that the number of hours that a teacher is in the classroom is below some amount, that her hours for preparation are above some amount, that the days in the school year are below some amount, and that professional development days are above some amount. In contrast, many choice schools recognize that students’ achievement can be directly affected by the hours and days they spend on school grounds, in the school’s custodial care (not necessarily in instruction), and on fundamental tasks like reading. Thus, it is not unusual to see choice schools experiment with year-round calendars; school days that start early and end late; and school days that contain substantial periods for meals, homework, and play. Choice schools often make these changes pay for themselves by substituting non-teachers for teachers efficiently (when instruction is not going on), by reducing losses associated with students taking books and materials home, and by reducing the need for remediation and disabled instruction."

Hoxby is a big believer in school choice and charter schools as ways to drive a process of experimentation and evolution in how K-12 education is delivered.  My point here is not to argue the case for how such change should be implemented, but to point out that most K-12 schools basically operate in a mid-20th century structure, with some computers sprinkled on top. Education is so very important for social and economic equality within the United States and for economic growth in the context of a globalizing economy. For so many students, U.S. schools badly need shaking up.