Home > Uncategorized > Bill Gates Millions Get “Lackluster Results”… And Christiansen Institute Sees Innovation as the Answer

Bill Gates Millions Get “Lackluster Results”… And Christiansen Institute Sees Innovation as the Answer

July 14, 2018

Christiansen Institute (CI) fellow Thomas Arnett writes thoughtful blog posts that buttress the CIs belief that technology-based disruption is the way forward if we hope to improve public schools. In his recent post in the CI’s weekly digest, Mr. Arnett offers his perspective on the recently released study of Bill Gates’ initiatives, describing their findings as “lackluster” and poses two questions based on these findings:

Following a multi-year, multi-million-dollar initiative by the Gates Foundation to boost school performance through better teacher evaluation systems, RAND’s researchers found that the initiative failed to produce significant gains in student outcomes. When a promising education reform like this one misses the mark, where should education leaders turn next? If we step back and look at the big picture, what options do we really have for dramatically improving schools?

In his examination of “the big picture” Mr. Arnett astutely observes that teachers have a limited time frame. He uses a principle of economics called the “production possibilities frontier” to illustrate this reality.

Here’s a simplified example to illustrate the concept: Suppose a hypothetical non-profit called Basic Aid makes two goods—bread and shirts—for people in need. If the non-profit has its employees spend all their time producing bread, it can churn out nine thousand loaves a month. Alternatively, Basic Aid could schedule its employees to spend all their time making shirts and produce seven thousand shirts a month. Most months, however, the non-profit has its employees split their time between these two forms of production.

The graph below represents Basic Aid’s production options. At point A, Basic Aid only makes bread. At point B it only makes shirts. Connecting those two points is a curve that shows all the ways Basic Aid could maximize its production of bread and shirts given its available workforce. This means Basic Aid can make tradeoffs to produce any combination of bread or shirts that lies on or below the curve. But it is impossible for Basic Aid to produce combinations of bread and shirts that are beyond the blue curve. Put simply, the curve represents Basic Aid’s production possibilities frontier.

How does this apply to schools? Teachers, like the imaginary non-profit, have a zero-sum time budget. I was heartened to see an acknowledgement that schools have a time budget that is more limited than it’s financial budget, but was disappointed to see that Mr. Arnett had no appreciation for the driving force behind how time is spent in schools operated by “reformers”. You see, in Bill Gates view and the view of most “reformers” the best way to determine a teacher’s impact was by examining changes in test scores. This, in turn, led to teachers squandering their time budgets on test preparation. If the only metric that counts is changes in test scores, it’s no surprise that teachers worked on test preparation… and no surprise that the results of their efforts were “lackluster”. Why? Because children have their own time budgets. They begin their schooling at different places and learn at different rates and tests expect all children to start at the same place and proceed at the same rate year-after-year. Anyone who has raised or taught children realizes that they grown and mature at different rates and that growth rates often have no bearing on where a child will ultimately end up. Standardized tests, though, do not take these individual differences into account. To make matters worse, many of the “reforms” that emerged from this test driven world developed scripts for teachers to follow based on the premise that learning was uniform… in effect that children’s individual “time budgets” would somehow change. This just in Mr. Gates: if time is a constant, learning will be variable no matter how you try to write a script wishing it were otherwise.

If the “reformers” want to see changes in performance, that learning should be constant, they need to accept the fact that time should be a variable.

 

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