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September 05, 2007



Education has never been able to improve on the classic model of the teacher on one end of a log and the student on the other end.

Generally the best measure to improve quality is to lower the student teacher ratio and that lowers productivity.

But the interesting thing is that despite many private ( non-government) sector schools in the UK, the US and other countries I have not seen any significant evidence that private sector schools have been able to improve productivity in education any better than government schools.

If vouchers or other for profit school systems are suppose to be able to improve education why is their no evidence that the existing private schools have better productivity than government schools?

Maynard Handley

Education has never been able to improve on the classic model of the teacher on one end of a log and the student on the other end.

Generally the best measure to improve quality is to lower the student teacher ratio and that lowers productivity.

I can think of at least three issues wrong with these claims.

(1) Might schools be more efficient if students were more aggressively segregated by ability/civility, regardless of age, gender and other political factors? If teachers could teach the smart aggressively, and the mild-mannered mediocre without being interrupted they might do a better job.

(2) How much **honest** research has gone into what works and does not work in teaching. God knows we've seen unending amounts of ideologically motivated crap, but the ONLY scientific tests of what works and what doesn't that I know of are Carl Weiman's work in teaching 1st yr college physics students.
For example, B F Skinner (yeah, yeah, boo, hiss) had some very interesting claims regarding what he called learning machines. As far as I can tell, this idea, without being shown to be good or bad, has simply been abandoned; my guess is because it's threatening to the teaching establishment.

Certainly, regarding a rather different type of teaching machine, the fact that computers have been a uniform disappointment in teaching does not surprise me, but also does not strike me as conclusive. What we have had so far is two severe problems --- the first being the poison of "IP" infecting everything related to teaching in computers, so that no-one, even with the best will in the world, can actually put together what they would want; they have to settle for what they can do without triggering someone else's complaints, and this drastically limits their scope for action. Secondly the most prominent actors in this space are commercial companies --- organizations with zero interest in the truth of a matter, or the effectiveness of a product; what they are concerned about is flash --- will it look serious enough to persuade a head master to buy it, and will it be amusing enough to persuade children to claim they enjoy using it?
These two pathologies should not surprise us --- academics who have been roped into producing historical atlases, say, can regale you with horror stories about how they were told to redo maps to make them look more impressive, to have trade route arrows "imply vigorous movement" rather than accurately show what is known, etc etc.
Until society is willing to stand up and say that, at least when it comes to education, the imperatives of commerce are not as important as the imperatives of superior education, society will continue to get what it deserves.

(3) There are plenty of different educational models in the world. Every year we hear how some country or other does something far better than the UK, or the US, there is a one day gnashing of teeth, and everything goes back to how it was. For example, there are countries in Europe that do a superb job of teaching foreign languages. It's no secret how this is done --- they start teaching them on day one of class one. Yet countries like Britain and the US have no interest in changing they way things have been done for the last hundred years.

In summary: spare us the bullshit about how it's a hard problem that no-one knows how to solve. It's a problem not because no-one knows how to solve it, but because most people really don;t want to change things. Teachers don't want change, businesspeople don't want a different "IP" regime, even one limited to educational uses, parents aren't willing to accept schools that are any different from the way they were taught.

"What Went Wrong?" It's not just a question for the Middle East. Don't be surprised when Asians are asking it one hundred years from now, in the same amazed tones as we look at the Arab world. "How could they have been so retarded? Why did they refuse to accept the most basic and simple changes to their system? Wasn't the long term pattern obvious?"


It is surely a sign of managerialism ad absurdum to believe that 'productivity' in UK education can be measured by financial inputs vs GCSE passes per pupil.

Conor Ryan is good on some of the failings of this approach:



Conor's right - in any business, productivity can fall after big investments, as it takes time for their full pay-off to become clear.
The question is: what hard reasons do we have to suspect this will actually happen?
Of course, GCSE passes are a crude measure. But are they a biased one? If so, why? And on what metric is productivity doing better?

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