1: Issues   3: Grades   7: History 
 2: Lectures   4: Technology   6: Myths   Contents 


Financing Change: School Time and Money

We spend so much money on the military, yet we’re slashing education budgets throughout the country. No wonder we’ve got smart bombs and slow children.

 – Jon Stewart

Let us take a step back and review what we know so far. Many people are upset with school – they have been for a long time. Their dissatisfaction arises from six fundamental flaws that can only be solved with technology. Rather than being cold and impersonal, computers allow for greater choice, flexibility, and human interaction. Yet computers are now relegated to Internet searches and word processing. No content is being taught with them, and there is no evidence that this is changing. The obvious question is, “Why?” If computers are so much better, why are we ignoring them? The answer can be summarized in one word: money.

According to opinion polls, the biggest problem facing schools is a “lack of financial support”. Everybody knows that school budgets are declining, right? Well, not exactly. Despite claims to the contrary, we now spend more money on education than at any time in history – and not just because of inflation or population growth. In constant dollars, per pupil expenditures doubled between 1970 and 2000. Expenditures continue to rise faster than inflation. It now costs over $11,000 per year to educate an average American high school student. Our problem is not a lack of money, but how existing money is spent.


Content is King

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” However, some critics thought McLuhan’s contrarian disposition and stream-of-consciousness rhetoric rendered most of what he said incomprehensible and the rest incorrect. Perhaps his ideas had some validity in the 1960s, when television consisted of three nearly indistinguishable networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). It is difficult to accept his argument today in a thousand-channel landscape that offers specialty programming as diverse as Treehouse (for preschoolers), EWTN (Catholic religious programming), The Fight Network (bloody human combat), and Maleflixxx (hardcore gay pornography). Try mixing up those broadcasts for a week and then explaining to irate subscribers that it’s the medium rather than the message that matters. On second thought, McLuhan’s comment was obviously absurd when he made it. Print media in the 1960s boasted millions of titles, serving every conceivable demographic. The medium is not the message, unless you are a professor of media studies. For everybody else, the message is the message.

Many people have a strange idea of what innovative teaching entails. They imagine, as McLuhan might, that it requires new techniques, such as immersive group activities. But immersive group activities are as old as Socrates – probably as old as cavemen. In all of my years as an educator, I have yet to glimpse an “innovative teaching technique”. I don’t think it exists. When we speak of innovative television, we are referring to content, not whether it’s 3D or Smell-O-Vision. We should think of education in the same terms. Group work can be valuable or pointless; as can lectures, discussions, field trips, and everything else we do. We should not be searching for new techniques that don’t exist. We should be asking ourselves, “How can we improve content?”  More precisely, “How can we improve content with the money that we now have?”


Lord of the Rings

In 2001, New Line Cinema spent $93 million to make The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which played on over one thousand U.S. movie screens for fifteen weeks. The budget paid for the salaries of actors, writers, key grips, animators, editors, etc. Together, they produced a landmark film with remarkable special effects and memorable performances. The secret to movie magic is spreading work out among many specialists to create one amazing product.

Imagine if, instead of making a movie, New Line Cinema divided its money among one thousand small theater groups, each in charge of a fifteen-week production. Dividing $93,000,000 by one thousand, gives $93,000 for each group to write a script, make costumes, design sets, and pay actors and musicians. A recent stage production of Lord of the Rings cost twenty-six million dollars (and opened to poor reviews). Surely $93,000 would not yield anything decent. Rather than a great film that lasts forever, we would get a thousand instances of junk that exist briefly and then disappear. Of course, this is a ridiculous scenario. It would be a monumental waste of time, money, and resources. Yet that is exactly what we do every day in education.

As I write this, thousands of teachers are designing their own versions of lessons intended to teach the same concepts. The result is an inconsistent and low-quality product that is a waste of society’s resources. The fault lies not with hardworking teachers but with an archaic system that ignores modern technology.

Wherever you are right now, take a look around. Almost everything you see is a product of mass production: furniture, appliances, cars, clothing, carpeting, etc. What is not mass-produced is constructed from materials that are. Even information relies on this principle. Software, books, movies, radio, and television are distributed (or broadcast) to millions of people as copies of one original. Most industries mass-produce their main product. This is true in publishing, entertainment, agriculture, and manufacturing – but not education. In education, our main product is information. Yet aside from sparingly used textbooks, this information is not mass-produced.

In high school, although most teachers work over forty hours per week, only twenty of those hours are spent in class. The remaining time is spent on other activities such as marking, lesson preparation, and meetings. In other words, teachers have less than twenty hours to prepare for twenty hours of instruction. For lack of a better term, I will call this the Preparation to Presentation Ratio, which basically means “production values”. The maximum PPR for teaching is 1 (20 hours of preparation ÷ 20 hours of teaching). In the TIMSS 1999 video study, teachers reported preparing thirty minutes for a typical one-hour class, for a PPR of 0.5. How does this compare to other forms of information?

Chalkbored took me over 4,000 hours to research, write, and edit. If it takes you eight hours to read, the PPR will be 500 (4,000 hours of preparation ÷ 8 hours of presentation). Television is even higher. For example, Saturday Night Live lists a cast of fifty on its website, including actors, writers, producers, and directors. Not on this list are technicians, cameramen, ushers, interns, personal assistants, etc. If we assume that seventy-five people each spend fifty hours to create a ninety-minute show, the PPR is 2,500 (75 people × 50 hours ÷ 1.5 hours). If you subtract commercials, it is closer to 3,500. Similar calculations can be made for music, movies, and video games.

Movies are the ultimate time hog. It is difficult to estimate the preparation for a film because employees are often involved only part-time. A particular actor may be on set one day, while post-production staff may not start until filming wraps. Pixar, by contrast, offers a simple estimate. Pixar is the animation studio responsible for Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. In recent years, they have employed a workforce of eight hundred people and released a film every eighteen months. Not all employees are animators, but they all contribute in some way to the production of films. If we assume a standard working year of 1,800 hours per employee, a movie might require two million hours to create (800 employees × 1,800 hours × 1.5 years). Thus, the PPR for a two-hour Pixar film could be near one million (2,000,000 hours preparation ÷ 2 hours presentation).

An animation studio may seem more labor intensive than other studios, but Pixar films have budgets comparable to live-action films. Big-budget thrillers often destroy elaborate sets and props. Filming a burning car may not seem like a labor-intensive task until you factor in the labor required to manufacture the car. Studios can pay animators – or they can build sets, buy props, and pay film crews. Either way, the size of a budget reflects the amount of labor involved.

Comparing the PPR for different types of media provides some insight into why students are bored at school. The information they get outside of school is prepared with greater care. The PPR for television, movies, video games, and books is many times greater than for lectures. Teachers cannot compete with this quality and complexity. It boils down to time. If teachers had more time, they could design better lectures, labs, and worksheets. They might even be able to create software capable of delivering individualized instruction. This cannot happen because teachers have less than one hour to prepare for each lesson.


next: Education Myths


This is an excerpt from Chalkbored. Order the book here to learn more about ...

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