Sunday, April 22, 2012

Educational Innovation from Outside the Establishment

Innovation from outside well-established orders is not unusual. Just think the work of college dropouts Steve Jobs and Bill Gates or, more generally, the rise of capitalism and the astounding accompanying increase in longevity and standard of living that we have enjoyed as a result.

Innovation from the government-run education bureaucracy is almost non-existent, despite much lip service to audio-visual aids in the 1950s and distance learning in the past decade. Charter schools have been a feeble attempt to encourage innovation from within but the vise of bureaucratic rules eventually checks their freedom.

In light of this, three educational innovations from outside the government-run system are well worth mentioning. Take first the growth of the for-profit higher education market.

Trashed vehemently and repeatedly by the academic establishment, the Kaplans, Capellas, and DeVrys of the country, among many others, cater to a unique market segment: older working adults often seeking a career change. The story of the for-profits is told unapologetically in by Andrew Rosen, chairman and CEO of the Kaplan organization and himself a product of the old-line East Coast establishments, Duke and Yale Law.

The for-profits, Rosen points out, are the third of three disruptive innovations in the last 150 years. Land-grants, despised by the elite as “workingmen’s colleges,” were the first. Community colleges, despised as overgrown high schools, were the second. And now the for-profits are the third, despised for measuring their success by money and customer satisfaction rather than, as Rosen pointedly and with considerable data observes, by the number of new buildings constructed on the resort-like campuses of traditional nonprofit and state-run universities.

The hullabaloo over the high proportion of student loans and high tuition at for-profits? Caused by de facto government price fixing. Recent innovation? The start-up for-profit New Charter University (1, 2) is offering as many classes as a student can complete within one semester, all for $796 (or $199 a month), plus a try-for-free plan. Do I hear snarky indignation from the establishment?

The second innovation from outside government channels is the rise of many entrepreneurial and parent-funded private schools in the slums of India and Nigeria (1, 2). Up to sixty percent of the elementary schools in these areas are private, with as many as thirty-five percent of them unrecognized by the government’s statistics. The schools are run by sole proprietors and cost perhaps five or ten dollars a month or about twenty-five percent of a typical parent’s income. Parents prefer these “greedy, profit-making” schools because their quality is much better than that of the free ones run by the government.

Not an entirely a new phenomenon, Estelle James and Gail Benjamin (1, 2) in the 1980s and ‘90s demonstrated that private education, whether in less or highly developed economies, will arise spontaneously when the government system fails to meet the needs—in quantity, quality, and price—of the market. The recent discovery of these schools in India and Nigeria reminds me of the work and success of Chicago teacher Marva Collins who taught her “retarded” public-school rejects to quote Shakespeare.

The third innovation coming from outside the establishment is an idea remarkably similar to what I suggested in Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism (pp. 172-79): mass lectures followed up with individual (not two- or three-person) tutorials. Salman Khan posted several math videos on YouTube designed to help his cousin only to find that many people around the world were benefitting from his ten-minute, easily digestible chunks of Internet-based learning. Now he heads the Khan Academy with 3100 (and counting) brief educational videos ranging from K-12 math to science to finance and history. Schools—public and private—are using the videos to communicate the basic fund of knowledge, which students access and watch at home, while class time is used to troubleshoot and individualize the learning.

My idea was to make a free market in education economically viable. Salman Khan seems to have beaten me to the punch. Now if we can only get the government completely out of the way!

It will be interesting to see how long before the public-school bureaucracy corrupts the use of these videos. After all, are all those teachers really necessary now? Ah yes, I can see the Luddites warming up their sledgehammers.

My description of these three innovations, incidentally, in no way means that I think the intellectual or political climate is softening toward the idea of a free market in education. In the near or distant future, I still do not see the idea on the horizon.

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