Saturday, May 7, 2011


I have a long-held notion about schooling: instruction is necessarily labor intensive, but the American genius is for substituting machinery for labor. The substitution works beautifully in all sorts of applications, from cleaning cotton to mining coal to tabulating census results, and we think it should work beautifully everywhere. This winter we were at a party down the street and found ourselves talking to a man about our age who works in the media. He was interested in applications of computers to instruction. I said that though I work every day with computers and enjoy doing so, I am skeptical about their use in education. He mentioned the appeal of games to students, etc. I thought my wife considered I was showing my skepticism too blatantly, but found afterward that she was wholly on my side. (I'll add that the fellow was at the party because his daughter had gone to a private high school with the host & hostess's daughter; he paid a stiff price for her schooling--call it 25% of the median income for a local two-earner family in this area--and I don't think computer costs made up much of the bill.)

And we think that we can use technology or at least technique not only to replace labor, but to allow the use of less skilled labor. For an example of that, look in the attic of a house built in the last 30 or so years and with a peaked roof. You will see metal trusses that secure the roof beams where they meet. Before somebody invented those, carpenters had to "toe nail" the beams, which required a good deal of skill. Now they slip over the truss, nail through that into the beams, and they're done. Quite possibly I could do that, and quite certainly I could never have secured beams the old way.

The equivalent in schooling seems to be to eliminate the teacher's discretion. Teach to this curriculum, assess with these tests, and all will be well. The rule books get thicker, but I don't know that the instruction gets better.

We do acknowledge the labor-intensive nature to the extent that we attend to class sizes. Still, I've seen complaints here and there that productivity in education hasn't kept up with that in other parts of the economy.

We acknowledge the importance of skill with our enthusiasm for such programs as Teach for America, though the skills that get one into TfA seem to be the skills of the student, not the teacher. And in many ways the public debate concerning teachers seems to point a moral that you don't need the smarts of a TfA kid to learn--you're young and cute now, but at 40 you'll be regarded as a drain on the public purse and a symbol of what is wrong; better schedule that LSAT/GMAT/MCAT/GRE.

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