Ask Reading Kingdom: what are the greatest inefficiencies in the delivery of public education?


Bruce (Educator) asks:

In your opinion, what are the greatest inefficiencies in the delivery of public education?

Dr. Marion Blank (Founder of Reading Kingdom) answers:

Throughout my life I have been fascinated by the teaching process and its power to change people. As part of this process, I have been particularly intrigued by television. Although it has sharply deviated from its early days, when it started out, TV offered amazingly powerful, knowledgeable, and informative material that was at the same time entertaining. Without seeing or meeting the audiences, the designers of the programs were effectively educating vast numbers of the population.

How did they do this? There were two key factors: 1. they were masters of excellent content and 2. they understood their audience. Given these two conditions, effective public education is attainable. That is what TV and related media have shown us. But that is not how public education operates.

Basically it has taken a totally different approach. Instead of thinking of how to engage a large population, it has gone the route of individualization. This has occurred in many ways. For example, consider the field of special education. In the opinion of many experts (an opinion that I share), the failures of most children in school is not caused by learning disabilities in the children but by ineffective curricula. Instead of changing the curricula, a program of expensive, time consuming testing is used and the children are diagnosed with various disorders (e.g., language disability, communication disorder, attention deficit disorder, etc.). They are then given (expensive) small group or individual instruction with the same curricula that caused the learning problems in the first case. In other words, special education, predicated on the idea of individual diagnosis and treatment, has not proven to be effective—but it has proven to be extraordinarily costly.

Similar comments hold for education in the general classroom. Teachers are steadily asked to think about ways to adapt the classroom for the needs of each individual student. While the goal is laudable (and in some instances attainable such as providing amplification for children with hearing problems) for the most part it is unrealistic. For example, analyses of classroom interaction show that if a teacher were super-focused on the issue, the maximum time he or she could engage any student over the course of a day is 3-4 minutes. It is simply not possible in group settings to engage in individualized instruction. But what television and other mass media have taught us is that it is not necessary. Phenomenally effective education is possible if we have good curricula that are both well-designed and entertaining. In this connection, it is interesting how excited people are about the use of the iPad and related devices in facilitating learning. Admittedly the iPad meets the entertainment component and as such, it holds children’s attention for a time. However, for the most part, its content offers no improvement over currently available programs so that it is unlikely to improve academic performance in any significant way.

Basically we now have the technology for fabulous public education. But until we are willing and able to design solid curricula and move away from an unrealistic model of “individualization,” we are going to continue in a cycle of expensive but ineffective teaching.

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