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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