Saturday, November 3, 2007

An Innovation Factoid, Buried in a Voucher Argument

From Megan McArdle, buried inside a post on vouchers:
At a conference last year, I saw an incredibly compelling presentation from the guy who does usability for Treo. He talked about design philosophy, and showed slides of a project he does where he goes into various institutions, divides people into groups, gives them spaghetti and some tape, and asks them to build the tallest self-supporting structure they can. The worst-performing group, you'll be unsurprised to hear, was MBA students; they spend all their time arguing about who will be boss. Engineers do okay. But the best performing group? Kindergarten students.

The students don't plan anything. They just try stuff, and if it doesn't work, they try something else. The presenter's argument was that if you want to do something quickly, and well, you need to have a lot of failure. Failure is the quickest way to learn.

Now, as for vouchers, I'm in favor of anything that will get kids educated enough to be able to feed themselves and their families. The current educational model is hopelessly broken. Will vouchers help? Maybe around the edges.

But the real problem is that the system is mode-locked. You can use vouchers to work around incompetent school administrations and horrific teacher hiring practices. But the main problems with K-12 education are that the infrastructure of education--the textbooks, the curricula, and the teacher training--need to be changed and the cost of that change is simply too high to be tolerated easily. It's like the QWERTY keyboard: It's a ridiculous layout for a modern keyboard, but the costs of retraining are so high that it remains--and will remain--the standard, 50 years after the technology rendered the reasons for the layout obsolete.

Textbooks are expensive. Even though there are new ones that come out all the time, they're hard to replace for most schools, and even harder to qualify. Most schools systems are very conservative, ordering the latest edition of the same old book.

Curricula are even harder to change. The cost of modification includes setting new objectives for what needs to be learned, then designing (in collaboration with the above-mentioned textbook vendors) courseware to meet those goals. It's beyond all but the most ambitious school systems, and requires huge amounts of money. Vouchers can't solve the problem unless enough voucher money gets concentrated in one place to make a difference. But the whole idea behind vouchers is to avoid such a concentration.

Finally, teachers get trained once, at the beginning of their careers. Retraining takes the teacher off the market for at least a year. The cost of such retraining has to be borne either by the individual teacher or by a school system. Again, the switch cost is unacceptably high.

So what to do? It's a hard problem. I've often thought that open-source methodology ought to be applied to education. If you get courseware and curricula designed by open communities, many of the most costly impediments to true innovation would be removed. But open-source is a highly centralized, consensus-based activity. I'm not sure that it would produce enough innovation to solve the problem.

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