Bill Gates Unplugged

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Business Lesson for Public Schools:

The Law of Declining Returns

By Eddie Griffin

The great educator, Mrs. Hazel Harvey Peace, as she was approach the centenary milestone, described her production as “the law of declining return”. Her quip took me aback to something I had learned while studying economics. What she was essentially saying to me was that the older she got, the less she was able to do.

But then, I see the same principal at work among school teachers today. Not so much that they produce less the older they get, rather the more and harder they work the less productive the outcome.

These are two examples of the economic law of declining returns. The first, that of Mrs. Peace’s, derives from the manufacturing model of production. The second derives from a defective price model.

When a manufacturer puts a new machine into operation, theoretically the machine produces perfect parts. But gradually, as the machine wears out and becomes depreciated, it begins to produce less perfect parts and more and more scrap. At some point, the machine should be repaired, overhauled, and eventually replaced. Manufacturers who ignore this principal wind up producing their products at a higher and higher cost, until the manufacturing process is no longer profitable and the business no long sustainable.

The second example follows along the lines of a popular Tex-Mex restaurant that annually increased its customer base and sales. The strength of its cash flow allowed it to increase its credit line and expand its business to new locations. But despite increased sales, the company was losing money and had no idea as to why. An analysis showed that it was losing one-to-two cents on each sale, and the increase in sales was only aggregating the total losses.

Teachers are realizing that public schools are in a downward spiral. Academic achievement is on the decline, the dropout rate on the increase, and classroom management is growing less controllable. The solution, they perceive, is to do more, put more time in preparation, work longer hours, give more and more individual attention to each student, use more supplemental materials, and give them homework assignment.

These things they have been doing for years. But this is a case where more produces less. So, what is the problem?

To solve the problem of declining return in the first example, the business owner has to realize at what point the machine is no longer producing profitable products, at what point it needs repairs and at what point even repairs are no long viable and what the long term cost of replacement would be and could the company invest in a new machine before running out of liquidity.

To solve the problem of declining return for Poncho Restaurant chain, it simply meant raising prices on its menu, and to keep raising the prices proportionately as the cost of operation rose.

So what then about the public school system?

Our education system has evolved from the Victorian age to the mass production age to the current digital age. However, our mode of delivery has remained largely the same, and thus the classroom has been manned by the same type of school teacher, with the same type of educational background. Where once education was only for the elite, the mass production model was pyramidal, allowing only a select few to reach the top of the pyramid, while others drop out along the way, with the latter finding mediocre jobs and positions on the lower part of the food chain.

Yesterday’s teachers are not equipped for the digital age. Once they receive their degrees and teaching certificates, they pass on yesterday’s knowledge, which they previously acquired, to the next generation of student learners. Therefore, the pool of knowledge becomes stagnate over time, and antiquated in the long run.

When new technology is introduced into the class, old school teachers are faced with a new learning curve to climb. And, like those on the pyramid in the generation before them, they find themselves sliding. More classroom experience is not necessarily a contemporary asset, but rather a liability like worn out cogs in the machine or old prices fixed against new operations.

We need a new type of teacher, one that is technologically savvy, continues to learn, engages the student, and innovate. Michelle Rhee is right.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Beyond the Crisis in Education: Part 1

By Eddie Griffin

Having been a volunteer with the school system for a number of years, I always find myself returning to the same point: What is wrong with our school system? It makes no difference that we have answered the question over and over again, we somehow seem never to get past asking to actually implementing solutions.

In order to break this endless cycle of defining and redefining the problem, we need to break the paradigm of cyclical thinking and jump straight to where we need to be and how education can get us there.

There are three relative benchmarks: (1) The Crisis Point, i.e. the point of failure and dropping out of school; (2) The Minimum Achievement, i.e. reaching the graduation finish line; and (3) The Ultimate Goal, i.e. catching up with Finland, the most educated country in the world.

If it takes all our time, energy, and effort to get our school children to reach the finish line, then it would take an overkill strategy to get them beyond. In Texas, we are consumed by TAKS state testing. In years to come, the standard will be End-of-Course assessment. But in either case, when the academic standards are low, global achievement will continue to decline, relative to the more advanced nations.

This is why it is necessary to look beyond our borders to see why countries like Finland, Japan, and Canada are leaving the United States behind.

The first thing to note about Finland is its commitment to and great appreciation for education. Once primarily an agricultural society, it focused upon becoming a high tech industrial society. To achieve this goal in one generation, it set a tough national curriculum standard and required all teachers have a Masters degree, and drew from the top 10% of college students to teach in the classroom.

There are three teachers per classroom, and many students stay with the same teachers over a number of years. The average student speaks four different languages, including English. And, the dropout rate is only 2%. Per capita cost is about $3,000 less annually than the cost per student in the United States.

See: Education Finland on NBC Nightly News

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sue Huffman: Fort Worth School Superintendent, January-June 1882

She was born May 12, 1859. Her parents were Philip A. and Caroline Huffman. She was educated at Fort Worth High School, Galveston Female Academy, and Sam Houston Normal Institute, Huntsville, Tex. At a competitive examination for the Sam Houston Normal Institute held in 1879 she obtained the remarkable average of one hundred throughout. She graduated from that institute In 1880, and was awarded the Peabody medal. She is a woman of thorough learning and rare accomplishments, to which are added many personal charms. She has traveled all over the United States and in Canada. She married in 1882 Mr. Ed. F. Warren, who died in 1889; in 1892 she married Mr. Frank Brady. She organized and graded the public schools of Fort Worth, and also those of Decatur, Tex., being the first superintendent of those schools, and the first lady superintendent in Texas.

Promethean Board demonstration