On the Beautiful Messiness of Freedom

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As Independence Day approaches, Americans are preparing to celebrate our freedom. This year, I will be celebrating the many significant advances in educational freedom.

Freedom is messy. An education system in which providers are free to experiment means a system that is open to disruption. But what exactly does that mean? Here are just a few examples of how we might rethink key components of our education system—including student advancement, student assessment, and learning environments—from our friends at the Clayton Christensen Institute:

Rethinking Student Advancement

Since the late 19th century, most schoolchildren have advanced according to credit hours (or “Carnegie units”). All students of the same age were expected to advance at the same pace across all subjects. Unfortunately, that meant some students would struggle just to keep up while more advanced students were bored. A better way, argues Michael Horn, would have students advance according to skill, not age:

Reengineering our education system in this way would also allow us to shift from focusing on how many years of schooling a student has—faulty measures that focus on time but not learning—to measures that allow us to see what students have mastered in terms of their knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

“Do. Or do not. There are no credit hours.”

Providing every child with an individualized lesson plan sounds like a logistical nightmare, but Horn believes the blended-learning model could make it feasible:

Blended learning can support competency-based learning by providing the tools to bring it to scale. As online learning improves, schools will be able to rely on it to deliver consistently high-quality learning adapted to each student. That will free schools to focus on fulfilling other functions critical to students’ life success. Digital innovations are rapidly reshaping the world around us, but we can harness those same innovations to prepare our nation’s students to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Indeed, as Horn notes, New Hampshire has already begun moving toward competency-based education.

Rethinking Student Assessment

In the traditional classroom, teachers are tasked with both instruction and assessment. However, as Thomas Arnett explains, these two roles create tensions that can make the teacher’s job very difficult:

By way of comparison, the arrangement of having teachers act as both instructors and assessors is akin to asking the judges in a gymnastics competition to also coach the gymnasts leading up to the event, or asking a restaurant manager to conduct official food handling inspections at his restaurant. In many domains of life, we recognize that we create problematic conflicts of interest if we ask people who produce or perform to also provide the ratings of their outputs for external audiences. Yet, in education it is the norm to ask teachers to both coach their students and rate their students’ academic achievements.

One facet of this problem stems from the fact that traditional grades are highly subjective. Teachers’ assessments and grading systems are not developed using rigorous psychometric techniques to ensure validity and reliability. Instead, we ask teachers to develop their own grading systems based on their professional judgment and interpretation of learning standards and school policy. Translating standards into a rigorous and fair grading system is sticky business.

Arnett also highlights the conflict of interest teachers have because they “need to develop good relationships with their students’ and their students’ families”:

If their grading system is “easy,” few students and parents are likely to complain. On the other hand, if their grading system is “hard,” they can end up with a flood of phone calls and meeting requests from upset parents. This puts pressure on teachers to go easy on their students in order to keep everyone happy. But teachers who hand out “easy As” are not doing an adequate job preparing their students for future education and for life beyond school.

Overcoming these obstacles is not impossible—Arnett readily concedes that we “all know that the best teachers are highly skilled at navigating these dilemmas”—but he argues that it’s best not to put teachers in such dilemmas in the first place. One way to separate instruction and assessment, he proposes, is through online assessments. Compared to having teachers develop and grade their own tests, online assessments—done right—would be less expensive, provide crucial feedback to teachers and students more quickly, and would have greater validity and reliability. Moreover, they would free teachers to focus on instruction and shift the teacher from the role of referee to the role of coach.

Rethinking the Classroom

If schools are going to operate in new ways, it follows that we may have to rethink the physical space in which learning takes place. The traditional classroom was designed for the Industrial Era and has served us relatively well since then, but it assumes a certain relationship between teachers and students—as well as school operations generally—that may not apply in some modern learning environments.

In a fascinating interview with Michael Horn, architect Larry Kearns explains how he designed a building to meet the needs of a blended-learning school in Chicago:

In a traditional school, since learning is monopolized by large-group direct instruction, all you need are cellular classrooms, with rows of desks focused on a single instructor. Since this “habitat” for learning is so culturally ingrained, it often goes unquestioned. …

Since blended-learning schools leverage multiple modes of learning, their spatial needs differ. At a minimum, they need spaces designed for different types of personalized learning, which can occur individually through digital media or in small interactive groups. The small-group learning can be peer-to-peer or teacher-led. Ideally, spaces for all of these modes of learning can be located in the same physical space, interlocked to minimize disturbances between them.

This combination of learning spaces is inherently decentralized since it focuses on the students. The teacher’s desk, if there is one, is pushed to the margins. Consequently, blended-learning “habitats” look nothing like their predecessors. …

Scheduling activities in a blended-learning school is more challenging than a traditional school. You cannot rely on a traditional bell schedule dictating movement between classrooms that focus on a single discipline. In a blended-learning environment, students are continually rotating between activities in a single space as they engage with a myriad of topics. It is much less passive than a traditional classroom. Consequently, programming a blended-learning school is a four-dimensional exercise where time and space must be tightly integrated.

Image of blended-learning classroom from edSurge.

The Road Ahead

The ideas presented above are just some examples of how our education system might change in the coming years, particularly with the advent of ESAs. None of the above proposals are necessarily the best way of doing things. Some might prove ineffective. It’s likely that some reforms will work well in some circumstances but not in others—or for some students, but not others. The best way to sort the wheat from the chaff and to match individual students to what works best for them is through a decentralized process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution. Policymakers must resist the urge to impose regulations that would undermine this process. As AEI’s Michael McShane wrote recently:

School choice programs simply establish the conditions for a market to emerge. That market relies on both demand- and supply-side responses. If parents cannot access the schools that they want their children to attend, they won’t support the program. If new schools or new providers don’t enter the market, either due to regulation or because the funding mechanism doesn’t offer them what they want, there won’t be enough seats. The better advocates understand this complex dance of supply and demand, the better they can design programs that will meet the desperate needs of so many American families. [Emphasis added.]

Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Fatal Conceit that the “curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Indeed, the most well-intentioned of policies can produce results that are the opposite of what was intended. We need look no further than Wisconsin and Louisiana to see how policies intended to protect the poor from the uncertainties of the market ended up depriving the poor of its benefits.

If Hayek isn’t enough, perhaps the Book of Proverbs will do: “When pride comes, disgrace follows; but with humility comes wisdom.”

2 Responses to On the Beautiful Messiness of Freedom

  1. sstotsky says:

    Parents and local school boards will have almost no freedom to shape the curriculum they want in their own tax-payer supported schools if the Senate votes to re-authorize ESEA during the week of July 6, 2015 as Alexander and Murray have written it. Not one hearing for parents who pay attention to their children’s education.


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