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At least when it comes to the task of education, the historical record suggests that Johannes Gutenberg and Henry Ford probably had little in common. In fact, you might well have rejected either of them as a candidate for secretary of education.
But maybe we should look again. On one aspect of the educational enterprise, they operated from much the same philosophy. If there was something good and valuable for the population at large (books for Gutenberg, autos for Ford), there had to be a way to make it available to the masses at a decent cost.
Gutenberg’s movable type produced an explosion in publishing that ended wealthy people’s monopoly on books. Ford’s assembly lines put cars in the driveways of tens of thousands of families, opening doors of opportunity and adventure for them all.
Similar quantum leaps have occurred in dozens of other fields. In case after case, things that used to be luxuries became easily available to the masses.
Education gobbles higher and higher proportions of our wealth, while in many cases delivering less and less.
But not in education. If over the last century we had applied to food production (for example) the strategies we’ve used with schooling, cornflakes would be $20 a box, eggs would be $10 a dozen, and a steak at a restaurant would take a $100 bill. And with those prices would come no guarantee that the food would be edible.
Instead, farmers, processors, and distributors —following the pattern of Gutenberg and Ford—persistently found ways to do more with less. The result: A typical American family today spends less than 15 percent of its income on food, compared with 40 to 50 percent spent by families in some other countries.
Education, meanwhile—both public and private, and at every level—gobbles higher and higher proportions of our wealth, while in many cases delivering less and less. Why?
It’s too easy to blame big government. For indeed, the rise in the cost of education has paralleled the huge jump in the cost of government itself and the simultaneous growth in government’s involvement in education at every level. Government’s typically heavy and wasteful hand is of course part of the issue.
But the ultimate problem lies elsewhere—as I have stressed in this column before. Professional educators, by and large, have resisted the application of the Gutenberg-Ford style of thinking to education. The result is that few families, except those with significant wealth, can afford on their own to get a good education. If it weren’t for the largesse of government (with our money), public schools would never survive. If it weren’t for the largesse of committed teachers who accept substandard salaries, and of similarly committed donors, private schools would soon go out of business.
The great challenge is to increase the productivity of education, just as has been done for books, cars, and groceries. Teachers, administrators, and board members will have to get over the idea that there is some magic in low student-teacher ratios. Imagine Johannes Gutenberg rejecting the concept of movable type because of some maxim that a good printer could produce no more than 10 or 15 finished pages a month!
God has put at the disposal of humans in this generation incredible tools for learning and discovery. The opportunity to discover great teachers, and then through appropriate use of the media to multiply their effectiveness, has never been more profound. But the goal should be to increase—not decrease—student-teacher ratios.
Granted, there are times in education when nothing can match a one-on-one or small-group exchange. But just because those situations are sometimes desirable doesn’t excuse our insistence that we always use such expensive formulas. The future in education, at least in part, belongs to those with the wisdom to employ a significantly large student-teacher ratio when they can, preserving precious resources for the richer ratio required when a loving arm must be wrapped around the shoulders of a struggling or lagging student. Only when we make wisest use of the former will we genuinely be able to afford the latter.
Midterm elections are just a few days away—which means that mailbox fliers, posters, yard signs, and even a few digital devices will be advertising political candidates. Almost all of them, Democrats and Republicans alike, are promising to spend more money than ever before on education.
But it’s a foolish promise. Indeed, it’s a promise I hope most of them break.