Monday, October 10, 2011

Education reform

Education is the key to the future. Most people will agree on this. But can be capitalize education and get the result we want. Like a previous post about why health care is so outrageous expensive in this country, capitalization of education fails for similar reasons.

The key problem with the dropping effectivity of education is that it serves the wrong customer. Colleges and universities serve the students. And the state and federal government encourages that for the same flawed logic. They demand certain graduation rates, or they cut the budget under the idea that low graduation rates means bad education. I argue that it is much more likely that the opposite is true. Let me explain.

When you measure universities and colleges by their graduation rates, there are two ways to achieve that. One is to do a better job at teaching (which is the hope), and the second is to lower the requirements for graduation. When two options to achieve the same arbitrary goal exist, what does a system do? It finds the easiest way to a solution. And in this case, that is often by lowering the requirements for graduation. Because if you lower the requirements by 1%, you will have instant increased graduation rates. Try doing that by improving teaching.

The core of the problem under all this is the wrong focus on who is the client. As I indicated above, the focus is on students as the client. And rule number one in business is to satisfy the client. So, what to do when too many students fail their class and become dissatisfied clients? Lower the requirements so they can graduate.

But this problem goes deeper. A standard aspect of teacher evaluation at universities is student evaluations. Sounds great. Let the students evaluate the teacher. The client gives feeback to the producer about the quality of the product. Perfect example of consumer driven evaluation. Very capitalistic! And it works. Bad teachers get bad evaluations. And that is how it is supposed to be. Right? really? Does it?

It doesn't. It doesn't because it focuses on the wrong client. Universities traditionally have as a task to produce people who can do certain professions in society. Whether this are public of private institutions, even the later receive most money from the government through grants and loans to students (independent of the student can actually pay those loans back).

So, why is the government paying so much for education? To subsidize the dreams of individuals? No. When dreams of students match up with their major, nice, but ultimately, governments spend money on education to educate people so they can contribute to society. And with that in mind, we should realize that the client the universities need to serve is society.

And what would that change? Well, if we take the needs of society as the benchmark for education, graduation rates as a primary measure of success are useless. Graduation rates are nothing if those students cannot find jobs at the level they are supposedly being trained for. But that should be the criteria for success.

This criteria contains two factors. One is the level at which they are supposed to be trained and the second is whether the university was successful in doing exactly that. Once we step away from student driven quality norms, and go to society driven quality norms, we get a handle to actually reform education and bring it to the level it needs to be at.

Instead of having teachers lowering their standards so they have 70% of the students pass the class, we have to get to setting a priori standard of what students should know, and if 80%, of the students fail for a class, so be it. The students that survive will at least know what they need to know. And once we measure universities by how well their students do instead of have they jumped the hoops in the proper order, maybe we can stop the gradual decline in oblivion.

PS, don't get me going about the practice of grade curving, which is the ultimate tool for students as a group to lower the standards for a class by collectively sitting back and do nothing. Because in the end, if you are just a tad better than the 20% losers, you have a good grade. Students don't compete against each other, they find the best strategy to passing grades that leaves most time for partying.