Welcome to the Profit of Education website. Continuing the conversation begun in the book Profit of Education, we discuss the latest economic evidence on education reform.

The net, teachers, and a bit of theory

Educational resources are unequal both within and across countries. Suppose that the very best lectures were freely accessible everywhere to everyone through the internet…what might happen? A very interesting theoretical speculation suggests some surprising answers in the article “Equalizing Superstars.”

Think of teaching as composed of two types of activities which we’ll stereotype as “lecturing” versus “one-on-one.” Right now, teachers all do both. Kids who get the best teachers learn more. Along comes the internet with free videos (or other instructional material) made by the handful of people in the world who are the very best lecturers in each subject.

First thing that happens: all the rest of the teachers in the world are out of the lecturing business. The time formerly spent on in-class lectures gets replaced by students viewing the superstar, online lectures. (Okay, there are some obvious oversimplifications in the idea that “lecturing” and “one-on-one” are easily separable. But let’s see where the idea takes us.) Students who now get access to better lectures learn more. Those few students who would have had superstar teachers anyhow don’t see a change, everyone else catches up a bit. So the world gets a bit more equal by bringing up the bottom.

What happens next? The teachers who are no longer lecturing are freed up to spend more time one-on-one. Because their students are better prepared due to the better lectures, the one-on-one time is more effective than in the past. So student learning moves up another notch.

The authors then suggest a very interesting result for all the non-superstar teachers. Suppose you’re almost, but not quite, as good as a superstar. You’ve been well rewarded for your skill as a lecturer. That skill isn’t valuable anymore since you’ll be replaced by a web browser. Since your skill isn’t so valuable, you get paid less. (The authors do assume that a teacher’s pay is related to how much their students learn, which is stretching things more than a little.) In contrast, teachers who weren’t close to superstar can continue the one-on-one they’ve always done. Because one-on-one is now more valuable, so are these teachers.

All this is theory, not based on any data. (To translate from economist-ese, “theory” means “a bunch of math.”) You can see holes, no doubt. The point of this kind of theorizing is to work out a part of a story we might not have thought about. In this case the authors are telling us that disruptive improvements in educational technology can not only have direct improvements; they can also free us teachers to do the kind of work that no web browser could ever replace.

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