TCS Daily

Three Can't-Miss School Reforms

By Arnold Kling - August 24, 2006 12:00 AM

As we approach the start of another school year, it might be good to think about school reform. What follows are some ideas that do not require government action to be implemented. They only require common sense.

  1. External Examinations

Teachers should not be allowed to construct and grade their own exams. Instead, examination should be done by outsiders.

I teach AP statistics in high school. The AP curriculum in statistics is a good one, and the AP exam is tough but fair. It is more difficult to prepare students for an AP exam than to prepare them for the quizzes that I make up. However, the results on the AP provide a much more accurate and objective indication of how well the students are doing. The results certainly give me valuable feedback on how well I am doing as a teacher.

A simple way to separate the teacher from the exam is to exchange grading responsibilities. For example, have the teacher of "algebra 2" make up and grade the final exam given to the students taking "algebra 1" from a different teacher. Chances are, the algebra 2 teacher has a good idea of what it is really important for students to master in algebra 1.

When I was a student at Swarthmore College, students in the honors program took seminars in their junior and senior year. Their grades in these seminars were determined by professors from other colleges, who made up the exams based on the curriculum supplied by the Swarthmore professors.

Exterminal examinations would eliminate most of the incentives for grade inflation. Many professors face budgetary pressure to lure students into classes, and what students most want is the "easy A." With the standard practice, where professors make up their own exams, the students put pressure on the professor to make the course as easy as possible. If instead the exam were made up externally, then the pressure would be on the professor to teach the course rigorously.

  1. Interactive Textbooks on the Web

Traditional textbooks are expensive and many are not high quality. In statistics and economics, which are the subjects with which I am most familiar, we are starting to see web texts that are better than traditional textbooks. Carnegie-Mellon University's Online Learning Initiative does a very good job in statistics and in economics.

What makes the web potentially superior is the opportunity to give students immediate feedback. As soon as a concept is introduced, a student can be asked to apply that concept to answer a question or solve a problem. This keeps students engaged and ensures that they master each lesson before moving on. The Carnegie-Mellon courses make use of these interactions, as do textbooks based on Aplia, a company started by Paul Romer, a highly-regarded Stanford economics professor.

The material available on the Web is rapidly improving. There are web sites whose sole purpose is to track the burgeoning field. For example, in economics and statistics, there is a web site called The Business Book Mall, with links to many free online textbooks in business, economics, and related mathematical subjects.

  1. Independent Study and Guided Study

The combination of interactive textbooks and standard external exams could facilitate independent study. The interactive textbook allows the student to learn without having to attend lectures. The external exams provide a way for students to prove that they have learned.

As a teacher, I believe that the interaction between teacher and student is very important. However, the traditional lecture is not the best format for interaction. Instead, a good teacher acts as a guide, helping students find the next interesting topic and offering feedback on the student's ideas. For many students, a combination of independent study and guided study may work better than the traditional lecture hall.

Arnold Kling is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute. He teaches "Economics for the Citizen" at George Mason University and also teaches Advanced Placement Statistics at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington, DC.

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