Traverse City Record-Eagle


July 18, 2013

Phil Power: 'Assembly-line approach' has to go

Reduced to essentials, here’s what happens in most American schools and universities: A “teacher” appears before a group of pupils and talks, making notes on a board or putting up images, while students take notes.

Classes range in size from 20 to 30 in high schools to hundreds in large university lecture courses to individual tutorials at elite institutions like England’s ancient Oxford University.

Instructional course materials include textbooks, often supplemented by articles from books and journals and other audio-visual materials. Periodically, students are tested for their mastery of course materials and graded on their performance.

This basic method of learning and teaching has not changed much over the centuries, in some ways, perhaps, not since Socrates gave open-air lectures in ancient Greece. But there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the performance of our schools, especially in poor and urban areas.

The situation is even more dire in our public universities, where state support has declined by as much as 50 percent over the past decade, while costs have increased faster than inflation. The result is skyrocketing tuition and fees — and mushrooming student debt.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations America’s school graduation rates have slipped over the past three decades from first to 10th for percentage finishing high school; from third to 13th for percentage of the workforce who graduated from college.

Though funding has been cut, the learning and teaching industry is still enormous. Michigan’s fiscal 2014 budget earmarks more than $15 billion for elementary, secondary and higher education, almost a third of the $49.5 billion total.

Labor costs in this industry are high as well. Public schools, for example, are at heart a highly regulated public utility, with very high labor costs and, mainly, quite resistant to change.

Yet like many other industries, education is also enormously vulnerable to developments in technology. That’s exactly what’s happening right now, and the result is likely to revolutionize our schools and colleges in ways both profound and unpredictable.

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