Replacing the SOL

Reading Time: 2 minutes

512px-Inside_a_classroom_of_a_school_in_KabulThis is a thought experiment more than anything else, however, it may have practical application. In business, we’ve learned that there is one question to ask a customer which is more useful than any other

On a scale of 1 – 10, how likely would you be to recommend us to a friend? Why or why not?

On a similar vein, I propose totally changing the Standards of Learning test as a way of evaluating a teacher. The flaws in the SOL are very straightforward:

  1. It takes place too late — by the time the student fails the SOL, it’s too late to bring them back up to speed
  2. It incentivizes “teaching to the test” and no employer gives a rat’s ass if a student can pass a test.

My hallucination is that the primary goal of teaching is not to transfer knowledge per se, but instead to light the fire in the student so they not only want to pursue learning but have the tools necessary to do so. In a sense, our goal should be to make teachers obsolete — to transform every student into an autodiadact and transform the teacher into a mentor role.

My solution is to replace the SOL with a weekly two question feedback from the students. In the modern age, this can be done via computer very quickly and the results evaluated rapidly. The trick is to know what to look for. The questions are:

  1. What is one new thing you learned in class this week?
  2. On a scale of 1 – 10 (1 being “yawn” 10 being “heck yea!”), how excited are you to return to class on Monday? Why?

For the first question, we don’t actually care what the student says, we care how the student says it. Does the reply indicate they are fully engaged? Does the reply show that the student actually learned something useful? What are the changes from last week and the week before?

The second question reinforces the engagement issue and allows a bit of quantitative analysis along with evaluation of the why portion.

The feedback is more or less instantaneous. By supplying the summaries to the teacher, they can get feedback on what’s happening in the classroom. Oh, and give the teachers enough time to evaluate the information. This isn’t an assembly line. Kids can learn more in 2 hours when engaged than they can in 2 days when they aren’t.

It’s not a perfect solution, but I can make the argument that something along these lines, which can be completed in under five minutes a week, will give better feedback and course correction to the school system than the 20 some hours of annual testing which all students, teachers, and administrators view with loathing.

Punishing efficiency

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Years ago, I practically lived in a little restaurant.  I ran my first, rather small, consulting business from a table in there and spent a lot of time observing and learning about the food service industry.  I recall one young guy — call him Scott — who was hired as kitchen staff.  There was a set list of tasks to be done every evening for closing the restaurant, some of which could be done while there were still a few customers present.

On his first night, Scott finished all the closing tasks in record time — the place closed at 11:00 and he was completely done by 9:00.  Being a hard worker, the manager found more work for him to do.  And more work, and more work.  By the end of the week Scott had been properly trained.  The closing tasks consumed his entire evening work and Scott was finished them at precisely 11:30.

The paradox

It is a paradox of economics that we tend to reward inefficiency and punish efficiency in our employees.  Think about it for a second.  If you assign eight hours worth of work to an employee and they finish it in one hour, will you

  1. Give them the other seven hours off with pay or
  2. Find more work for them to do?

Now think about this.  If you assign one hour’s worth of work to an employee and it takes them eight hours to do it, will you

  1. Dock them seven hours pay (and get sued) or
  2. Pay them for the time and write it off to either your optimism or their learning?

The problem

To be fair, the problem stems from the fact that it is very difficult for we employers to actually estimate how long a particular task or set of work will take.  By demanding a known quantity from our employees — hours worked — we think we can use the law of averages in our favor.  We also operate under the somewhat delusional idea that by rewarding with more responsibilities and increased pay we will motivate people to keep giving up the only asset humans really value — time.

However, I have news for you.

  1. If you employ fewer than about a hundred people, the law of averages is not going to work.  You don’t have enough data points.
  2. By definition the law of averages means you are settling for average productivity.
  3. We’ve entered a world where more and more people are beginning the understand that true wealth is defined by the way you spend your time, not by how many dead presidents you have stuffed in a mattress.

The most disturbing piece of news is that employees learn.  If you punish efficiency for a few weeks, they will learn to never be efficient.

Now, it’s your turn…

No, I don’t have an easy answer for this particular dilemma, maybe you the reader can suggest some solutions.  Drop a comment if you have an idea.

Until next time…