Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Progress means giving up what is sacred today for sacred unknowns of the future

Arnold Kling has a link to a study on education with this abstract:
Can schools that boost student outcomes reproduce their success at new campuses? We study a policy reform that allowed effective charter schools in Boston, Massachusetts to replicate their school models at new locations. Estimates based on randomized admission lotteries show that replication charter schools generate large achievement gains on par with those produced by their parent campuses. The average effectiveness of Boston’s charter middle school sector increased after the reform despite a doubling of charter market share. An exploration of mechanisms shows that Boston charter schools reduce the returns to teacher experience and compress the distribution of teacher effectiveness, suggesting the highly standardized practices in place at charter schools may facilitate replicability.

 A key point here: "An exploration of mechanisms shows that Boston charter schools reduce the returns to teacher experience and compress the distribution of teacher effectiveness..."

That sounds terrible, doesn't it?  I think this is key to fundamentally different approaches to progress. It seems like supporting the current providers is key to improving current institutions.  But transforming institutions sometimes means making current providers less important.

There was a time where having a creative, problem-solving blacksmith was key to having effective transportation.  Replacing that blacksmith with impersonal, monotonous factory work seems wrong.  It involves losing something sacred.  Yet, making blacksmiths unimportant was key to the transportation revolution.  You would not set foot on an airplane to take a vacation or a business trip halfway around the world if the airplane depended on a team of blacksmiths using experience and tactile expertise to create the engine parts.  The sacred act of visiting the Egyptian pyramids in person, or coordinating with an Asian businessperson could only be possible by eliminating the sacred role of learned and expert craftsmen.

The extreme version of this transformation is in telecommunications. Barely a human hand touched the phones we carry in our pockets with millions of circuits and parts.  Yet, those phones are only possible because new forms of creative work have been created.

To an extent, the need to unleash the creativity of teachers in the classroom is required because that creativity has to overcome the shortcomings of the institution it is embedded in.  It seems like it would be losing something sacred to create a more effective institution that would make that creativity unimportant.  Yet, what if a better institution leads to better education, even without creative teachers constantly bustling and working to overcome an ineffective institution?

A Silicon Valley designer can use creative work to improve the effectiveness of a million circuits in a phone that will be used by a million people.  That is a lot of leverage that the blacksmith couldn't have.  An institution that requires an immense amount of effort to effectively educate kids a roomful at a time is using an awful lot of sacred effort.  Wouldn't it be great to educate those kids with teachers that didn't need to be so creative?  And, wouldn't it be great to move to a world where the effort going into that creativity was leveraged beyond a room full of 20 kids?

So often, the difficulty in supporting progress comes in losing the known sacred in exchange for the unknown sacred.  In the end, progress depends on faith in emergent change.


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  2. Of course, you can also have quite a lot of sacrificing without progress on net. See the Soviet Union or red China before Deng Xiaoping.

    1. True. Probably the case in regressing areas of the US too, like infrastructure development.

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