Once upon a time, so-called public schools¹ were largely a response to two constraints: scarcity of educational resources, and difficulty of travel. But those constraints are no longer as significant as they once were.
Digital resources are infinitely reproducible, and have negligible costs of transmission. Anyone who can connect to the Internet has access to more educational materials than he could ever make use of, many of them available for free.
Travel has become easy enough that many people think nothing of driving 30 miles to go out to dinner. A hundred years ago, there were people who never traveled that far from where they were born.
So the world is a very different place than it used to be. And how has our approach to schooling adapted to these changes? Well, now we use buses to drive kids even farther from home, to larger schools; and having crowded them into rooms at these schools, we offer them – at a 10,000% markup – access to materials that they could more easily obtain and use at home.
An exaggeration? Let’s say we pay $14,000 per year to school one student, which is actually lower than the average for New Hampshire. And let’s say this student is taking seven courses, one of which is American History. That means we’re paying $2000 for that student to take that class. Add another 14 students, which gives us a relatively small class, and we’re paying $30,000 to get someone to teach that class.
On the other hand, for about $100 we could buy an equivalent course from The Teaching Company and let the students share it. It would be taught by one of the best teachers in the entire world. And the students could schedule work around their other activities, pause to take notes, rewind to watch the harder parts more than once, discuss what they’re watching online before continuing, and so on. For many of them, this would be a better educational experience than the one they’re getting now.
(Or they could use New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, VLACS, for free.)
So what are we getting for that extra $29,900? It’s mostly day care, isn’t it? With some social services and jobs programs thrown in for good measure. Not that day care, social services, and jobs programs aren’t valued by many people, but they’re not education, which is what we’re all being billed for.
If we were starting from scratch, and if we were focused only on education, there’s just no way that we’d come up with an approach that is as technologically, pedagogically, and economically backwards as the one in which we’re currently mired.
It’s as if we invented cars, but required people to carry horses in them; then invented teleportation, but required people to teleport in cars carrying horses.
Is this really the best we can do?
¹ They’re not really ‘public’ in the normal sense of that word. If they were public, then anyone could use them, regardless of where they happen to live, or how old they are.