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When I started grad school at the University of Arkansas, the first course I had to take was entitled “Math for Economic Analysis”.  Perusing the syllabus the first day I saw that the course was designed to be a “review” of the major topics of linear algebra and uni- and multi-variate calculus.  The problem?  I had never taken linear Algebra nor multivariate calculus.

As I sat in that classroom the voice of GOB from Arrested Development came into my head:  “I have made a huge mistake”.

Then an enterprising classmate of mine, who was in a similar boat, alerted me to Khan Academy, a free collection of videos explaining math concepts in a simple and straightforward way. I went to their website and saw video after video of the exact topics that we were covering in class.  Inverting matrices?   A video for that.   Eigenvalues and eigenvectors?  A video for thatLimits, derivatives, integrals?  Videos for all. Taylor Polynomials?  You already know!

When its founder, Salman Khan, showed up as the featured TED talk in my Facebook news feed, I was excited to see what new crazy things he was up to.  If you are involved in any way in education, it will be 20 minutes that you will not soon forget.  As it turns out, Khan (a former hedge fund manager) started the website as a series of YouTube videos to tutor his cousins in another city.  It has since grown into over 2000 instructional videos and a burgeoning interactive curriculum of math instruction.  And it’s all free.

So here comes my crazy idea (Building on something TJ has said before):

Schooling has become more expensive because schools suffer from something economists call Baumol’s Disease.  The one sentence summary of Baumol’s Disease: if there is no increase in labor productivity (though technology or more advanced training) salaries for labor intensive occupations (like teaching) will rise in relation to less labor intensive occupations.  Because teaching is such a labor intensive operation, cost will continue to go up unless something is done to make that labor more efficient.

Catholic schools have seen a rapid rise in cost not only due to a decline in vowed religious working in schools but also due to Baumol’s disease.   Want to decrease the cost of Catholic schools? Make the work of teachers more efficient.

This is where Khan Academy comes in.  Khan, in his Ted talk, referred to schools that use his videos as “reverse homework”.   Students watch the videos for homework, at their own pace, and come to class to do the practice normally assigned for homework.  In class, the teacher moves across the class individually interacting with students while they practice.  This changes not the student/teacher ratio, but the “student to valuable time with teacher ratio”, making the effort of the teacher more efficient.

Catholic schools all across the country could start using these free lessons for enrichment, remediation, or instruction today, increasing the class size that teachers could effectively teach and driving down the cost of a Catholic education.

What if swaths of the day were devoted to students working independently, at their own pace, receiving this instruction (which have I mentioned enough is free?) and had teachers simply for help when they got stuck?

Khan makes the argument that this more efficient mode of instruction frees up time for robotics and other enriching activities.  In the Catholic context, this instruction could free up time for more service learning, religious instruction, or class discussions whose time is eaten up by inefficient delivery of more fundamental content knowledge and skills.

If we are committed to making Catholic schools accessible to more students, we need to explore methods to decrease costs without decreasing quality.  In this rare case, we can actually decrease costs while increasing quality.

This is an important opportunity that we would be foolish to pass up.  I believe in this so much that if there are any Catholic school teachers or principals out there that want to give this a shot, I will help you do it.  Comment, email me, call me, and we will make this a reality.

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As I have had a chance to listen to this week’s congressional testimony regarding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a consistent argument that comes against the program has been brought up by several members of the House, and it needs to be addressed.

Several members (and untold numbers of voucher opponents) argue that we should be focusing our time, effort, and money helping the public schools (who educate the vast majority of students) and the time, effort, and money that we spend on school choice programs is simply a distraction from the larger issues of education reform.  “We have a fiscal crisis”, they argue, “and this is taking money from public schools that need it!”.

My three responses:

1. The DC OSP was designed to avoid this exact problem. When the original OSP was designed, it was part of the “three sector” solution to the problems plaguing the D.C. school system.  This involved increased funding for public and charter schools and creation of the voucher program, which was funded from a completely separate budget line item.  Not a single penny left the D.C. public schools and went to a private school. In fact, the program made money for DCPS as they were given more money but had fewer students to educate!

2. Children are not Social Workers. I stole that line from a statement from Mayor Cory Bookerregarding the New Jersey Opportunity Scholarship Act wherein he argued that it was ludicrous to keep kids in failing schools while the adults figure out how to fix them.  WE (and as a taxpayer, educator, and adult I’m right there with ya’ll) are to blame for our nation’s failure to educate children, and WE need to figure out how to fix it, but while WE’re getting our act together WE need to do everything possible to help the kids currently in the system.

Former D.C. city council member Kevin Chavous used the following analogy during his House testimony:  “The house is on fire and we have to proceed on different tracks, there are firemen that have to go put that fire out, and there are firemen that have to go inside that building and pull some of those kids out, and you know what?  You may not pull everyone out of that building, but you’re gonna pull out as many as you can to stabilize the system and to save lives…I really believe that by any means necessary really means by any means necessary when it comes  to the children we are trying to save.”

If you are of the belief that we shouldn’t help some because we can’t help all, I ask you a simple question, would you send your kids to these schools? And if you wouldn’t, why in God’s name would you force someone else to?

(If you’re more about the philosophical arguments for school choice, and are persuaded by the idea that it is wrong that some people get to choose where their kids go to school and others aren’t, you can feel free to stop reading now.  However, if you are a part of that minority that wants a deeper level of argument (and haven’t lost interest yet) I encourage you to read on, because it’s about to get dorky)

3.  A Rising tide raises all boats. In a more difficult to digest journal article (and a more reader- friendly piece in Education Next), superstar economist Caroline Hoxby looked at the performance of public schools in Milwaukee, Michigan, and Arizona after the implementation of school choice programs.  The money quote:

“Taken together, the findings presented here, from Milwaukee, Arizona, and Michigan, offer a first glimpse at how public schools are responding to these new forms of school choice. They suggest that the fears of a downward spiral aren’t merely overblown. They’re simply wrong.”

As it turns out, either because public schools get worried that they’re going to lose funding when students leave their schools, or because when students and parents get to choose where they go to school they sort into environments that better fit their needs, public schools get better in response to choice programs.

In graphic form (from Education Next):

The different types of schools (“most affected” “somewhat affected” and “not affected”)  describe how much pressure these schools felt from school choice, that is, how many of their    students were eligible and able to leave if they so chose.  It turns out the more of the “threat”   that vouchers were, the better the school performed.  If you read further in the article, you can     see her comparisons for charter schools in Michigan and Arizona (they look pretty similar).

So it turns out, rather than being a “distraction”, school choice can be a mechanism to help all of  the kids that don’t take advantage of the program.

Why?  Well you don’t have to be Milton Friedman to believe that the monopoly that traditional  public schools have in most urban areas is a hindrance to innovation and progress.  By introducing competition in the form of charter schools and voucher programs, all schools have to get better or risk losing their students (and funding).  While possibly painful for the adults involved, in the end, this is in the best interest of our children.

We have to do something to help the kids that are in D.C. both today and tomorrow.   It is always important to remember with vouchers that no student is ever required to use them.  If they are happy in the schools that they are in, they can stay.  But if they aren’t, all vouchers do is extend to them the same privileges that middle-class and wealthy people all across the country have, and to be against that is just plain wrong.