Sunday, January 22, 2012

A gaping hole in philantropy (2)

A great TED talk given by winners of the 2011 Google Science Fair shows that high school students can perform useful research if given the chance. These students were persistent and lucky enough to find a researcher who could give them access to a lab. Though it is difficult to know the exact number, a multitude of students must have given up before getting access to research facilities.

It is clearly not cost effective for individual researchers to give access to their lab to research savvy high school students on weekends, but society loses a great deal by not sponsoring these students.

Specialized schools in the fields of sports, ballet, music and theater exist already. Why aren't there any high schools which let teenagers do self-directed research in lieu of classes for half the school day?

Many parents already teach their profession to their children, but giving access to equipment and materials in the workplace is usually not possible. Now that the price of equipment has fallen enough for hobbyists to open labs such as Genspace, why can't specialized schools offer such equipment too?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Beyond Vouchers

Charter schools and voucher systems are a good first step towards improving the teaching of a state mandated curriculum. However, many market failures remain in such a system. While competition between a few schools offers students choice, the overhead of changing schools or selecting a school which is farther a field makes the market work poorly. Most importantly, student utility (eg. pain and effort to achieve a grade) has very little weight in the selection of teaching methods.

In reality, the operation of schools has little to do with the success of its students: after all managing a building and administrating personnel is a commodity. What matters is the teachers. So why not have charter teachers, all in the same building, rather than charter schools? If there is some overcapacity of teachers, then the worst ones as chosen by the students would end up out of business. This would give students much more choice in the compromise between attaining the highest grades vs. the effort they have to put in.

Knowing how good a teacher is before taking his class is quite difficult for a student, and repeat business is not really possible given that teachers specialize in one subject and grade level. So charter based teachers suffer from some of the same problems as charter schools: by the time students have enough information to choose a teacher, it's too late -- they are already committed.

A solution to this information problem is to force each student to cancel exactly one class per semester at any time prior to the final exam. The worst teacher as judged by the students will be financially penalized for each student that abandons his class. The very worst teachers would abandon teaching altogether.

Whatever system is chosen to improve education, the student's preference for effort vs. grades should be fully internalized.