Joel Belz: Innovation and education

JILL NELSON, HOST: Today is Wednesday, October 24th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Jill Nelson.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Next up, WORLD founder Joel Belz on innovation in education.

JOEL BELZ, FOUNDER: When it comes to formal education, history suggests Johannes Gutenberg and Henry Ford probably didn’t have much. In fact, you might well have rejected either of them as a candidate for secretary of education.

But maybe we should look again. Both men saw something good and valuable for the population at large—and then found a way to make it available to the masses at a decent cost.

Gutenberg’s movable type produced an explosion in publishing that ended wealthy people’s monopoly on books. Ford’s assembly lines put cars in the driveways of tens of thousands of families, opening doors of opportunity and adventure for them all.

Similar quantum leaps have occurred in dozens of other fields. But education isn’t one of them. If over the last century we had applied to food production, for example, the strategies we’ve used with schooling, cornflakes would be $20 a box and eggs $10 a dozen.

Instead, farmers, processors, and distributors have persistently found ways to do more with less. The result: A typical American family today spends less than 15 percent of its income on food, compared with 40 to 50 percent in most third world countries.

Education—at every level—gobbles higher and higher proportions of our wealth, while too often delivering less and less. Why?

It’s too easy to blame big government. It’s only part of the problem.

The ultimate problem lies elsewhere. I would contend the great challenge is to increase productivity. Professional educators, by and large, have resisted the application of the Gutenberg-Ford style of thinking to education. They applaud low student-teacher ratios. The result is that without subsidies from the government or from generous donors, only wealthy people can afford to get a good education.

Teachers, administrators and board members in both public and private schools will have to get over the idea that there is some magic in low student-teacher ratios. Granted, there are some situations when nothing can match a one-on-one or small group exchange. But much of the time, good learning, led by gifted teachers, is possible even with bigger classes.

God has put at the disposal of humans today incredible tools for learning and discovery. The opportunity to identify great teachers, and then use technology to multiply their effectiveness, has never been greater. But the goal should be to increase—not decrease—student-teacher ratios. This principle is being validated even by thousands of home schoolers as they pursue the greater efficiency of co-ops among participating families.

The future in education, at least in part, belongs to those with the wisdom to employ an enlarged student-teacher ratio whenever they can. Think about Johannes Gutenburg and Henry Ford the next time you hear low student-teacher ratios applauded as if they were the ultimate good.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Joel Belz.

(Photo/NEC Corporation of America, Flickr)

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