Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A Science Teaching Company

I don't think the voucher program that we get to vote on in November is the best of all worlds, but it is a start. The voucher system and charter systems only give the students a single choice of which school to attend. In real life, education is a multidimensional affair with choices being made on many different levels.

Having been "weeded out" of the education system, my thoughts started turning to fundamental questions about education.

As I mentioned in the last post, I first thought the idea of teachers owning their own classrooms as a joke. When I started thinking about all of the complexities involved in providing a world class education, it dawned on me that a truly open market would have such structures.

I was interested in math and science education. The two challenges of science education are: Getting cutting edge science equipment into the classroom, and attracting quality scientific talent. Attracting quality scientific talent is actually quite difficult as the skills of a great scientist is diametrically opposed to the skills of a great teacher. A good scientist (such as Dr. Mario Capecchi ) has the ability to methodically focus in on minute questions. Dr. Capecchi just received a Nobel Prize for studying genes within stem cells of mice.

The best teachers, on the other hand, have the ability to jump from topic to topic. In most cases they are more interested in the student than in the subject. In a rare occasion, there are professors who possess the capacity to be a great teacher and a great scientist. It is absurd, however, to expect such rarities to be common.

While on the topic of the Nobel Prize, I thought I would point out that Dr. Capecchi received his prize as part of a group. If you read through academic literature, you will find that the best scientific research these days is done by groups of scientists working in tandem, and not by lone isolated individuals hunkered down in basement labs.

To dramatically improve scientific education in the schools, you would want a structure that allowed scientists from different schools to form close knit alliances that would allow them to make group purchases of scientific equipment and to teach in tandem. This is precisely where the free market excels.

I started doing thought experiments on just how such a scientific teaching company would work.

As people involved in science know, good science is expensive. To bring good science to the school you would want a science teaching company with several million dollars to invest in scientific equipment and a few hundred employees. The personnel of the company would be split into two groups. There would be a group of teachers who focus on the learning of the students and a group of scientists who focus on the subject. The first group would have teaching degrees and concentrate on the learning of the students, the second group would have scientific degrees and industrial experience.

An independent science teaching company would be free to make alliances with business outside the school system. A wise teaching would want to diversify by providing adult education services and might even find it advantageous to subcontract with local science related industries to bring top talent into the classroom for show and tell.

For example, Salt Lake City has a strong biotech sector. Imagine a teaching company contracting with a local biotech firm and bringing in some state of the art research equipment into the classroom. I can guarantee you that if students actually saw first hand what these people are doing, they would toss aside their marginal dreams of becoming rock stars and start pursuing the realizable dreams of being scientists or doctors.

Unfortunately, this idea of a teaching company really can't work in the top heavy, bureaucratic laden public school. The system of charter schools and private schools, however, might make a market where teaching companies could come to life. What the voucher system does is it transforms our view of education from being a service provided by the state to a view that education is a right of the child. Rather than providing a service, the state provides a resource that follows the student.

The private schools and charters schools that are popping up around the state are finding that they do not have the capital resources to provide the services they desire. That voucher system will create a market where third parties can move in with services and curriculums.

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