Four broken feedbacks in public K-12 education

I believe that most problems are caused by broken feedback loops.  In 2009, I listed four broken feedback loops hurting quality in the public K-12 education system.   These include parent choice, teacher quality, grading and student discipline.

This weekend, the Wall Street Journal features basketball star Jalen Rose’s efforts to make a difference in education with his Leadership Academy charter school in Detroit.  Jalen addresses these feedback loops.

Parent choice:

“We didn’t cherry pick these kids,” says Mr. Rose. “They chose us,” he notes…

“There should be parental choice,” he says clearly. “Schools should be open. If it’s a public education, and the school in your district is poor-performing, you should be able to put your student or kid wherever you want.”

Choice could be relatively easily implemented, he says. “I’m a taxpaying citizen, right? So if I’m paying $4,000 worth of taxes and I don’t want my kid to go to this school, why can’t they give me my $4,000 and allow me to pick where I want to put my kids?”

Teacher quality:

His school also doesn’t have tenure for teachers. “I hate tenure. Tenure allows teachers to put their feet up on the desk and possibly have a job forever. That’s why I got turned on to charter schools. It’s a business model. Every employee and every teacher will be monitored by performance.”


“This is college prep. We expect 90% to 100% to go on to college”

Student discipline:

Kids too: “We have a code of conduct here. If they act up, they’re suspended. They come back with a better attitude.”



The clash of two systems

The video linked to in this post of New Jersey Governor Christie sparring with Diane Sawyer is a good illustration of what Arnold Kling writes about in this Econlog blog post, Two Systems.

Christie speaks from a perspective of System A where status is obtained by market acceptance, it’s retained by competing and enforced by choice (by market participants).

Sawyer defends from the perspective of System B, where status is obtained from credentials, it’s retained by tenure and enforced by authority figures.

I believe the primary source of the clash that occurs between these two systems comes from the differences in preference between the market participants and authority figures.

In this example, Christie and Sawyer discuss teachers.

Authority figures in education — such as teacher union leaders and their cronies in education administration and government — believe that college degrees (credentials) and tenure are the important factors in determining which teachers to hire and retain.

The market participants — parents of school age children — however do not give these preferences much consideration.  Rather they tend to rely on the reputations of schools and teachers and their own experiences with those teachers (e.g. do my kids appear to be progressing or not?).

The underlying and incorrect assumption made by authority figures is that they know better than the market participants and they seek to override their preferences.

I’ve seen authority figures in private organizations suffer from this same underlying and incorrect assumption with disastrous results.

One thing authority figures that produce good market results get right is that don’t let their own personal preferences override those of the markets they’re serving.  In fact, they build their organizations around meeting the preferences of the market participants.

Gov. Christie on how to tell a good teacher from a bad teacher

Diane Sawyer interviewed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the news this evening.  Video and article can be found here.  The 5 minute video is worth a watch.

The major topic of conversation is teachers.  At about the 3 minute mark, Sawyer asks (with a somewhat disturbed look on her face):

Are you so confident to know who is a really good teacher?

I like Christie’s answer.

Of course.  You talk to any parent who has children in a school, within weeks they know if they have a good teacher or a bad teacher.  And, the rumor mill in the school tells them too.

That goes along well with one of the things I wrote in this post about a good measure of teacher performance being parent recommendations rather than test scores.

Next, Sawyer fishes for a crack in Christie’s armor. Some teachers she spoke with didn’t like the tone of Christie’s voice.  She says:

My mom was a 30 year teacher.  All my aunts were teachers, and do you want to apologize to teachers if your tone seemed disrespectful to them?

Christie didn’t budge.  He looked her straight in the eye and said:

I don’t want to apologize to those teachers [the ones who complained about his tone].  If you treat me with respect, even if you disagree with me, I’ll treat you with respect back.

Finally, Christie is a big Springsteen fan.  Sawyer brings up that Springsteen wrote a letter to the editor criticizing Christie.  Christie’s response:

Are you surprised to hear that from Bruce?  I mean, you know…Bruce is liberal.  It doesn’t mean I like him any less. That’s fine.  It’s his point of view and he’s absolutely welcome to it.

I don’t trust politicians…any politicians.  But, I do appreciate that Christie brings something to the conservative argument that’s been missing for quite some time.

He doesn’t buckle to the emotional gotcha tactics and the non-arguments used by the media.  Other politicians would buckle in an effort to look agreeable and conciliatory.

I can imagine other politicians apologizing after Sawyer’s emotional plea, prefaced by her own history with teachers, or stammering about trying to explain why their music idol is an outspoken critic.

Christie didn’t have any of it.  In fact, his reactions were what I expect from adults when faced with childish and pointless diversions.

You mean Christie can still like someone’s music and even like the guy, even though the star disagrees with his politics?  Isn’t that way it should be?

“The future of education”

As said by Bill Gates.  He might be right.

Thanks to Arnold Kling on EconLog for posting a link to this excellent TED video:

Here are some of my thoughts.

I’m glad to hear school teachers are trying to figure out how to use and integrate the Khan Academy videos into their programs.  I expected them to see Khan’s work as competition and try to use government to limit access to the site.

At the very least, I thought we’d hear criticism from the establishment that this guy is not a trained and credentialed educator or that he’s not an educational expert or that his videos don’t really work.  So far, I haven’t heard any of that.  It’s tough to argue with his results.

This is a black swan.

At about the 8th minute, Khan describes the traditional classroom:

…homework-lecture-homework-lecture-homework-snapshot exam.  And then whether you get a 70%, 80%, 90% or 95%, the class moves onto the next topic.

Even the 95% student, what’s that 5% that he missed?

That’s analogous to learning to ride a bicycle where I give you a lecture, give a bike to you for a couple weeks and then come back and evaluate you.  You can’t quite stop, you can’t make left turns.  You’re an 80% bicyclist.  I put a “C” stamp on your forehead and then I give you a unicycle.

You fast forward and you see smart students start to struggle because they have these Swiss cheese gaps that kept building.

That reminded me of my own experience. I was a reasonably good math student.  When I entered college I signed up to tutor algebra.  The rigor of the tutor training made me realize that I had Swiss cheese gaps in my skills, like Khan mentioned.  But, that training filled in those gaps and helped me considerably in other courses.  I remember thanking that rigorous tutor training out loud while taking a few exams in the weed-out physics courses.

Khan continues:

Our model is learn math the way you learn anything.  The way you learn to ride a bicycle. Stay on that bicycle.  Fall off that bicycle. Do it as long as necessary until you have mastery.

Next, Khan articulates amazingly well a problem I have recognized with our education model, but have struggled to explain it:

The traditional model penalizes you for experimentation and failure, but does not expect mastery [e.g. time to move onto next subject even if you only mastered 90% of the last one].

We encourage you to experiment.  We encourage you to fail.  But we do expect mastery.

That is excellent.

About 14 minutes in, Khan talks about the progress students make in his model vs. the traditional model.

When you go five days into it [learning a new subject], there are a group of kids who have raced ahead and a group of kids who are a little bit slower.

In the traditional model, you do the snapshot assessment.  You say these are the gifted kids and these are the slow kids.  You say things like maybe we should put them in different classes.

But, when you let every student work at their own pace, we see it over and over and over again, you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept they just race ahead.

So the same kids you thought were slow six weeks ago, you now would think are gifted.

It makes you wonder if a lot of the labels that maybe many of us have benefited from were really just due to a coincidence of time.