Transforming Education

I was recently interviewed on NBC regarding education, market valuations and the accuracy of my forecasts of market trends made in 2001, among other things (www.pressheretv.com). Since the interview stimulated thoughts on the education market, I thought it was worth capturing a few in a post.

Why the quality of education in the United States trails

According to the World Bank, the United States leads the world in Gross Domestic Product, dwarfing anyone else. The U.S. GDP is 70 percent ahead of number 2 China, and almost 4 times the size of number 3, Japan. Given this wealth of resources, it is somewhat surprising just how low we rank in K-12 education among nations:

  1. 36th in mathematics for 15 year olds[1]
  2. 24th in reading for 15 year olds[1]
  3. 28th in science for 15 years olds[1]
  4. 14th in cognitive skills and educational attainment[2]
  5. 11th in fourth-grade mathematics and 9th in eighth-grade mathematics[3]
  6. 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science[3]

Part of the problem is that much of our priority as a country tends to emphasize short-term gratification over long-term issues such as investing in primary education. But the problem goes much deeper.

Classroom sizes have been increasing

Parents Across America, a non-profit organization committed to strengthening US public schools, point to studies that indicate that students (especially in grades K-3) who are assigned to smaller classes do better in every way that can be measured. Of 27 countries shown in a 2007 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey the United States ranked 17th in lower education classroom size, at 24.3 students per class. While other countries are investing in reducing classroom size, the U.S. is going in the other direction. Of 26 countries included in the OECD data from 2000 and 2009, 25 either decreased classroom sizes or kept them about the same. The United States was the only one that increased classroom sizes during that period.

Heterogeneous grouping exasperates the problem

In years gone by, U.S. classrooms were homogenous, as children were separated according to their skill level. This practice came under heavy criticism because it was viewed as discriminatory.  Throughout the United States, schools shifted to heterogeneous classes not because this technique was proven to be effective but rather in an effort to promote “political correctness.”

One teacher pointed out that “administrators love to boast that their school has heterogeneous grouping…but the administrators aren’t in the classroom, and they don’t see the disappointment on the faces of students when a new experience is presented and not everyone remains on the same page.”

Another teacher stated: “That ideal [of heterogeneous grouping], is an ideal….Truth is, in our experience the low-end kids tend to pull down the high-end kids, rather than the other way around. The class pace slows, and the teacher has to in effect devise two lesson plans for each period, one for the accelerated students and another for those who have low skills.”

In the past decade, many teachers have moved toward creating homogenous groups for reading and math within their heterogeneous classroom. One teacher who has 17 years of experience teaching in New Hampshire said that the second graders in her class showed up on the first day with a bewildering mix of strengths and weaknesses. Some children coasted through math worksheets in a few minutes, she said; others struggled to finish half a page. The swifter students, bored, would make mischief, while the slowest students would become frustrated, give up, and act out.

“My instruction aimed at the middle of my class, and was leaving out approximately two-thirds of my learners,” said this fourth grade teacher at Woodman Park Elementary in Dover, N.H. “I didn’t like those odds.”

So she completely reorganized her classroom. About a decade ago, instead of teaching all her students as one group, she began ability grouping, teaching all groups the same material but tailoring activities and assignments to each group. “I just knew that for me to have any sanity at the end of the day, I could just make these changes,” she said.

Flexible ability grouping, when used appropriately, works. According to a 2010 meta-analysis by Kelly Puzio and Glenn Colby, students who were grouped by ability within a class for reading were able to make up to an additional “half of a year’s growth in reading in one year.” Similarly, a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study of students who were grouped by ability found that the performance of both high- and low-performing students significantly improved in math and reading, demonstrating the universal utility of this tool, particularly as our classrooms become more academically diverse.

In summary, I believe that teachers have a more difficult time today than ever before. Their classes are getting bigger, their budgets are smaller, and heterogeneous grouping for the class means that effective teaching requires splitting the class into homogenous groups that each require a different lesson plan. Teaching parts of a class separately leads to less quality time that a teacher can spend with each group.  Without essential one-on-one instruction time, students suffer. If the class isn’t divided into 2 or 3 homogenous groups for lessons the students suffer even more, as they are denied level-appropriate learning.

The current system discriminates against the lower two-thirds of society

What I find surprising is that more people don’t realize that the practice of heterogeneous grouping is actually discriminatory to the lower two-thirds of society. Wealthier families typically live in neighborhoods with better school systems (with students that are more homogenous in skill levels); can readily afford tutors for their children; can provide after school access to learning centers; give their children prep courses for various subjects and for SATs; and if all else fails, send their offspring to a private school. Those in the lower two-thirds, economically speaking, have more limited access to additional help outside the classroom, cannot afford private school, often have parents without college education who are less able to help them, and may not even take an SAT prep course. Each of these put them at a disadvantage versus those that come from the upper economic strata of America.

I myself had hardworking parents who had not gone to college. My father was an immigrant and had to work before completing high school. But my education was accelerated because homogenous grouping was the norm at that time. This included being placed into a class of high performers who all received 3 years of curriculum in two years and therefore skipped a grade. I also was able to take a competitive test that enabled me to be accepted into Stuyvesant, one of the very high-end public high schools in New York City, geared toward helping public school students receive an honors course level education. I firmly believe that the access I had to be paired with students that were high achievers played a very important role in my subsequent success.

Technology provides a range of alternatives

One potential way to bridge the gap is by having multiple teachers in a classroom but I think this would be extremely unlikely to be funded out of constrained government resources. A second possibility is to provide teachers with the training and technical resources that could be used to enhance the student experience. All too often when technology is utilized, it is not integrated into curriculum and/or very complicated to use.  However, in recent years, there have been advances in K-12 education through the use of technology that is relatively easy to use and integrate to curriculum. For example, an Azure portfolio company, Education.com has created online workbooks and games that are aligned to the Common Core and are sold to parents and teachers for a starting price of $49 per year, making a subscription affordable to everyone.  Millions of teachers and parents in the K-5 levels now are basic members of the site, which offers weekly emails and limited educational resources that can be consumed free each month. With a Pro subscription, a teacher can print out unlimited workbooks, worksheets, and lesson plans for their class. The company estimates that roughly one billion worksheets are printed each year by parents and teachers for students to use. While teachers are likely to print worksheets that complement their current curriculum, parents can use printable worksheets and workbooks as supplemental material to help their kids in academic areas where their skills need strengthening. The fact that about 8 million parents and teachers come to the site in a peak month also indicates how strong the need is for these types of materials.

Education.com’s Brainzy program is a first step at individualized learning. It uses games to practice strategies for mastering core curriculum for students in kindergarten through 2nd grade. I have also met with a number of other companies who are creating products that can provide students with personalized learning tools. What Education.com and others are doing is still early steps in a process that I believe will lead to individualized education. If the United States keeps insisting on heterogeneous classroom composition but couples this with under-investing in education and requiring teachers to divide their time into separate lesson levels, then computer tools for the individual personalized instruction of each student appears to be the solution that can bridge the gap.

SOUNDBYTES

  • Stephen Curry picked up right where he left off last year scoring 40 points in the first game of the new season on strong shooting. Over the last 11 games, the Warriors remain undefeated behind Curry’s league leading scoring. After 11 games, Curry is averaging 33.4 points per game, a full 5 points ahead of the number two, James Harden, at 28.4 points per game. On Saturday night, in Curry’s 427th game, he surpassed the number of threes made by his father, Dell Curry, over his 1,083 game career. Earlier this year, we discussed why Curry deserved to be the clear NBA MVP and analyzed his scoring efficiency adjusting for his ability to hit threes from seemingly anywhere on the court (he was subsequently voted the MVP) .

Curry backup

  • Curry’s shooting has been even more dominant this year. Even based on “standard” statistics, Curry leads the pack not only in scoring average but also in field goal percentage. At 51.7% he trails only Blake Griffin, who has only taken 3 three-point attempts this season, in the top 10 scorers. Looking at “Field Goal Efficiency” (FGE%), a metric introduced in our previous post, that calculates a 3-point field goal as worth 1.5 times a 2-point field goal, we see Curry’s true dominance this season. Also, “True Shooting Percentage” (TS%) assumes that 1 of every 9 foul shots is part of a 3-point (or 4-point) play and therefore considers 2.25 foul shots as the same as one field goal attempt (since most pairs of foul shots replace a field goal attempt). Looking at these metrics we continue to see Curry’s clear dominance. Curry’s performance is off the charts as he is nearly 7 percentage points ahead of the second highest of the top ten scorers in FGE% and he is also well ahead of anyone else in TS%.
  • In a recent ESPN segment, Brad Daugherty called Curry “un-defendable”. If he continues to shoot the ball at this level, the road to a second consecutive championship and another MVP seems well paved.
[1] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). 65 educational systems ranked.
[2] Pearson Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment compares the performance of 39 countries and one region (Hong Kong) on two categories of education: Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment. The Index provides a snapshot of the relative performance of countries based on their education outputs.
[3] International Study Center at Boston College. Fourth graders in 57 countries or education systems took the math and science tests, while 56 countries or education systems administered the tests to eighth graders.

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