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(4) The Great Stagnation, Part 3: Sabotage and Gridlock

Imagine an education system that squeezes out a 1% improvement each year and causes, say, today’s high school graduates to learn 50% more than graduates from 50 years ago.

Imagine a university that squeeze out a 1% improvement in their teaching each year so that, over the course of, say, 100 years, they could teach 100% of high school graduates.

Have you ever heard of such systemic improvements?

Of course not. The field of education is so stagnant that even a tiny stream of 1%/year improvements are unheard of at the system level.

Blame the status quo. It is all but rigged to slow the rate at which teachers improve their craft.

  • Teachers-in-training do not learn the most proven techniques for learning. We assume we should trust our intuition when cognitive scientists adamantly say not to.
  • Teachers work alone even though innovation tends to come from diverse teams. Teachers learning by observing and collaborating with other teachers is rare, unpaid, logistically difficult, and a violation of norms.
  • Teaching can be tougher than rocket science, more demanding than being a first-year lawyer, and so relentless that teachers can’t find time to go to the bathroom.
  • Teachers in much of the world are paid so little that they can’t work on their craft because they work a second or third job and are too busy selling their blood plasma.
  • Teachers work without useful feedback and without useful research. Are you in touch with your kindergarten teacher? Do you know exactly what long-term effect their pedagogy had on you? How much do you know about the long-term effects your teaching has had? Can you point to evidence to support your guesses on the matter? Are such guesses based on a large collection of double-blind, randomized controlled field trials with big samples that measured how each lesson changed students’ opportunities, work habits, and attitudes over a 30-year time frame? [The answer is ‘no’ because such a collection does not exist!] The evidence for many educational practices is scant and rarely causal because there is very little money spent on educational research. The pharmaceutical industry invests about 17% of revenues in R&D. The education sector has comparable revenues, yet invests about 0.1% of them in R&D. Guess which sector is known for innovation?

So, next time you want to criticize a school teacher, a corporate trainer, or an educator of any type, please consider how rigged the system is against their improvement.

At an institutional level, the forces of stagnation are just as powerful, as documented by Larry Cuban.

For example, let’s say you are a brilliant educator and administrator ready create a self-paced high school program with an interdisciplinary approach that kids love.

You replace English 12 and a bunch of other courses with a multi-disciplinary course of history/literature/civics/drama. Will your students meet the government’s graduation standards? (Probably not.) Will students or parents be OK with that? (No.) Will school administrators and boards be OK with that? (No.) Will typical post-secondary institutions recognize your course? (No.) Will employers recognize that course? (No.) Major reforms to high schools are virtually impossible because the governmental graduation standards, post-secondary admission requirements, tradition, and employer interpretations would all have to shift simultaneously. You’ll also have to survive angry parents, skeptical school board members, media griping, and indignant politicians lecturing you on what a “real school” is.

You’re in a for a multi-year battle on many fronts and your “side” is nearly certain to crumble because staff turnover in education is very high.

Good luck with that.

Even the intuitive appeal of self-pacing – every child learning at their own pace, mastering content before moving on – fades very quickly in practice. A “self-paced” course means the student is working alone, often in a solitary manner. The student is not working with other learners, not sharing or learning from positive social norms of classmates, not learning to communicate or collaborate. The weaker and less motivated students fall just as far behind as they would in a collectively-paced class. Self-paced programs also suffer from rampant cheating because having 200 students all writing an algebra test at 200 different times guarantees some will tell others too much about the test in advance. Students say they miss interacting with the passionate expert.

Self-pacing lacks an impressive track record.

The difficulties of improving pedagogy and the gridlocked nature of educational reform may be daunting obstacles. But they are not immovable. They are not invincible.

Coming soon: How Bravo Math will bust through the status quo.


Another barrier is socioeconomic status, a daunting obstacle in the way of improving educational outcomes. But we know that it is not the only barrier to educational revolutions for two reasons.

  1. Organizations that basically exclude the underprivileged, such as many employers and universities, do not claim big advances in teaching either. Not even educational publishing companies claim these kinds of improvements.
  2. Schools vary dramatically in how they help (or harm) low-income students and this has been measured by random assignment data.

I will write about how Bravo Math will tackle this problem in a later post.

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