More Good News: Why Go Back?

WESTPORT, Conn. — Math students in this high-performing school district used to rush through their Algebra I textbooks only to spend the first few months of Algebra II relearning everything they forgot or failed to grasp the first time.

So the district’s frustrated math teachers decided to rewrite the algebra curriculum, limiting it to about half of the 90 concepts typically covered in a high school course in hopes of developing a deeper understanding of key topics. Last year, they began replacing 1,000-plus-page math textbooks with their own custom-designed online curriculum; the lessons are typically written in Westport and then sent to a program in India, called HeyMath!, to jazz up the algorithms and problem sets with animation and sounds.

Connecticut District Tosses Algebra Textbooks and Goes Online, Winnie Hu, June 8, 2009

As I said on Friday, some good ideas are so good they seem like common sense and it’s hard to understand why they are not commonly used. Even more than that, there are entire industries that do nothing but waste our time and money. The private health care industry is a great example. Why should so many people spend so much time trying to make a profit on keeping us healthy?

As has often been said, that makes no more sense than creating an entire infrastructure dedicated to making a profit off of fire or police services. (We’ve really suffered from the desire to make a profit from war, too.) These are all very large-scale, dramatic examples that seem to generate all sorts of passions, perhaps because the changes seem so enourmous.

The end of the textbook industry, however, is a good example of a less-than-earth-shattering transformation that makes as much sense as a single payer health care system. As the Connecticut example shows, with a small investment (in their teachers) school districts can save a lot of money by simply by-passing a completely unnecessary, wasteful industry.

This is the sort of change– like SPIN farming– that is no doubt accelerated by the mess that conservatives have made of the economy. It’s also the kind of thing– like SPIN farming– that should be developed further as a part of the economic recovery. I think this could have gone even further, too. Districts could combine resources, for example, and hire local programmers.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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