Sunday, March 2, 2014

Opportunity Cost: Distance Learning & Best Ravitch Line from NPE Conference

In the midst of show weekend with my students here in PA, it was interesting to try to follow the Network for Public Education Conference in Austin this weekend. I have two initial takeaways from the experience.

Distance Learning Is Even Worse Than Phone Sex

I followed lots of folks on twitter, watched some of the streamed video, viewed video clips as soon as anyone put them up. This conference left a huge footprint on the interwebs, with #npeconference leading the twitter trend list both days on weekend that included rising tensions in the Ukraine and preparations for tonight's Oscar bash. Beyond getting a few more sessions in front of the live streaming or hiring someone to carry around video devices, I'm not sure how much more digitally covered the conference could have been.

And I have to tell you-- it wasn't nearly enough. I caught some of the meat, got to see the real faces and hear the real speech cadences of many people that I've come to know online, read many of the best lines form the weekend-- but in the end, I still felt like a bunch of my friends had had a really cool party and group experience and I had missed out on it. So much energy and excitement leaked through the sad tiny pipeline that is the internet-- I can't quite imagine how much there was in the real place.

Which made me think-- if this was how it felt to try to distance-follow an event in which I was primed to be engaged and which was accessible to me by a whole array of current technology, how terribly inadequate distance learning, cyber-schooling and all the other computer-based substitutes for a real live teacher in the same room as students must be.

Like phone sex (I imagine), the experience lived somewhere in the land between better-than-nothing and painful-because-it-reminds-you-of-what-you're-missing. In the end, I come down on better-than-nothing, but my feelings that distance learning must be terribly inadequate are now even more confirmed.

My Favorite Ravitch Point of The Weekend

I got the keynote address in bits and pieces through twitter (set strike was today), so I know there were plenty of applause lines there. But I definitely caught the truncated video of the NPE press conference, and that call for Congress to get involved again some more in the Giant Testing Mess (which leaves me with some mixed feelings because, hey, there's no way THAT could end badly) included a phrase we ought to hear much more often in this debate.

Opportunity cost.

"Opportunity cost" used to be a semi-obscure economics term. Basically it underlines that buying a candy bar for a dollar doesn't cost you a dollar-- it costs you all the other things you COULD have spent the dollar on. By spending money here, you lose the opportunity to spend it over there.

This is the perfect way to frame the debate over testing and test prep. We keep talking about ytime, about how much time the tests take, how much time we spend preparing, how much time goes into testing.

But it's not just time. As Diane correctly noted, we're really talking about opportunity costs. A week of test prep means students lose the opportunity to play in band or sing in choir or draw in art or play a game in phys ed. A week of testing costs students the opportunity to spend that week doing something else.

We could pay the cost of testing simply in time. We could say, "Look, these tests are so important that we are going to add two months to the school year just to get ready for the tests and then take them." We could actually pay the cost in time pretty easily. But if we paid it that way, we'd know exactly what it was costing us (summer vacations, angry phone calls from angry parents).

But opportunity costs we can hide. And we have. We've hidden them because we are pros at that and have been for years. We add new units about health and safety and nutrition and adopting dogs and fold it into the year as if the school year is a big accordion-shaped squeezebox of fluid infinite time. We never talk about opportunity costs.

So it is dead-on correct to call for a study of opportunity costs. It is dead-on correct to ask what we are taking away to do this unholy regime of pointless testing.

Because when something costs time, there's the illusion that there's always more time. We can get it back. But opportunities lost are gone for good. And talking about opportunity costs force us to ask hard questions.

Talking about value is easy. Did I get good value for what I spent? Is this a decent dollar's worth of candy bar?

But talking about opportunity cost-- that's another thing. Because now the question is-- of all the things I could have spent this dollar on, is this candy bar the best?

Proponents of the high stakes test-based education status quo (another thing that Ravitch got dead-on correct-- this IS the status quo, not a challenge to it) don't just need to prove that their testing regimen has some value or may serve some useful purpose. What they need to prove is this-- looking at the resources spent, the money spent, the hours of young lives spent, the work of education professionals spent-- looking at all those costs, were there better opportunities? What opportunities did we give up to pursue the big ball of testing wax, and would some of those opportunities have been a better use of our resources? What opportunities are we and our students going to have tomorrow, and which ones should we pursue? Is the high stakes test-based status quo really the best thing we can think of to spend our time and effort on? I may not have been there, but I bet everybody who was in Austin knows the answer.

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