Education Reform

Ensuring that every child has access to a quality education is one of the most important things we can do as a society. Unfortunately we seem to be pretty bad at it.

And I’m not just talking about the U.S. (which ranks about average among developed nations, while spending much more per student).

Every school system is stuck in the past. It’s not entirely the fault of those working in it, but it does need to be fixed. It requires a massive overhaul of the system, changing the way we teach students and giving more power to individual teachers to help the kids that need it most.

I have an (unoriginal) idea for a way to revamp the education system, make sure the best teachers are well-compensated and for all kids to get the same access to education, regardless of their parent’s income.

It’s simple, the teachers should just not teach.

That’s it. Case closed. Problem solved.

Uhh, What?

I get it. You’re probably asking yourself why that would help. Teachers are supposed to teach their students.

But the problem is that there’s no guarantee that your teacher is any good, we haven’t found a great way to figure that out. Observing teachers doesn’t work, because you can’t observe every teacher every day.

Grading teachers based on the performance of their students is a good idea in theory, but terrible in practice. It leads to teachers viewing poorly performing students as dangerous to their jobs, which is the exact opposite incentive we want to give them. We don’t want teachers resenting poor students; those students should be the ones getting the most help.

All you can do is hope that the school your kid goes to has great teachers. Though if you’re willing to buy a more expensive house you can increase your odds; school funding in the U.S. is largely supported by property taxes, so if you live in an expensive area then your schools will be better funded.

But there’s no reason to settle for that. _I _can teach Algebra just as well as the best Algebra teachers in the country. Most other subjects too, and I wouldn’t even have to teach.

See, I’m really just not very good at lecturing. Lesson plans, explaining complex things to tiny humans, it’s all very difficult. So I don’t think I’d bother.

I’d just get somebody else to do it.

All I’d have to do is find video lectures of somebody else teaching the subject. After all, a video of the best Algebra teacher in the country isn’t that much different than the real thing.

Of course I would certainly need to know the subject. If any student had trouble I could work with them one on one to help them catch up. But since I wouldn’t need to waste time lecturing, I’d be able to work with the students that need help all day long.


One thing you should know about me, I hate unnecessary work. There’s no reason to spend 2 hours working on something when you can get the same result in half the time.

So I don’t understand why every year, in thousands of classrooms across the country (millions around the world), a teacher plans out and gives a lesson to their students on why 2 + 2 = 4. Or explains to their students why Pluto isn’t a planet.

That information isn’t changing (usually). It isn’t different from school to school.

So why the hell do we make teachers waste their time teaching it?

If instead of giving a lecture the teacher could direct the students to watch a video, it would free up hours of their time each week. So not only is it better for the students, it’s better for the teachers.

Higher Quality Teaching

Perhaps the most difficult part of being a quality teacher is knowing how to teach a group of kids with the same lesson.

Different people learn best in different ways. Some people are visual learners, some audio, some tactile, etc. Each kid may have a different style that they work best with: some of the kids in class may learn best if they just read the material, some if they hear it explained succinctly, some may need to be hands on with everything.

The real value in a great lecturer lies in their ability to cater lessons to all of their students, and all of their diverse learning styles. That is really hard. And for some strange reason, we make every teacher do this every time they teach a course, even though it’s the same lesson.

That’s just stupid.

If instead we have a managed set of video lectures, it is relatively easy to make sure they are high quality. We can have a centralized group of highly skilled people whose only job is to create the best lectures possible.

Naturally we’d give students access to these lectures at any time, so if they have trouble with a lesson they can always just watch it again.

No longer would you have to worry about if your kid went to a good school or not. Every student would have access to the same education.

And even though the lectures would be standardized, the freedom this gives to teachers would allow them to become much better at teaching the outliers in their subjects. Advanced students can work ahead and students that are behind could easily get help. Without the need to worry about lectures, a great teacher can become a great tutor to all of their students.

In Practice

Interestingly, this level of catering to the students has already been tried on a large scale: homeschooling. In the U.S. today, there are over 2 million children being homeschooled.

If public schools started using taped lectures they would look a lot less like they do now and far more like homeschooling. The lesson plans could be better catered to the individual student, and they’d get more one on one time with the teacher.

And homeschooling, if you didn’t know, is far more effective than public schools. Which seems obvious, a homeschooled kid can spend more time on the subject they struggle with and less on the ones that come easily. A public school can’t do that yet.

Homeschooled children perform better than their peers on standardized tests, fare better in college, and despite most assumptions they have better social skills than their public school peers. Most tellingly, a study of homeschooled students showed that the performance gap between the children of high and low income families virtually disappears, and the racial gap is reduced significantly.

[I didn’t include it here due to it’s size, but here is a great infographic comparing homeschooling to public schools.]

Those studies are also 10-20 years old, when homeschooling was more difficult than it is today and public schools were largely the same.

The truth is, today I could homeschool a kid and give them a far better education than our broken education system. There is absolutely zero reason to send them to a public school if I want them to reach their full academic potential.

But we can change that. All it takes is a bit of investment and a willingness to challenge the status quo.


In some ways, the education system is already going in that direction. There have been a few limited cases where schools have experimented with ‘reverse schooling’ or ‘reverse instruction’, where the teacher assigns video lessons for homework and helps the students work through problems during class. But it astonishes me that it’s used so rarely even though the resources are already available.

Online sites like Coursera or Udacity already have full courses that you can take (most of them free too). MIT put most of their courses online and available for free years ago. But those are all for college level coursework.

Khan Academy is the largest resource I know of for this type of schooling at the K-12 level. For the past several years, Khan Academy has been building the resources to teach a variety of subjects using taped lectures.

Math is the easiest thing to teach in this manner, so that’s what they did first. They’ve built out lessons and practice problems to teach someone everything from basic arithmetic to college level calculus with no gaps. Practice problems are generated programmatically so you can do as many as you need, and you can check progress every step of the way. If a teacher wants to use it to teach a classroom of kids, Khan Academy has all the resources necessary to teach them and monitor their progress.

A math teacher can point their students to Khan Academy and they don’t have to worry about lesson plans again. They can focus all their time on helping the students who need it, and Khan Academy will even identify those students for them.

They also have lessons on science, economics, the arts, and computing. If you’re looking for more, another good resource is Crash Course on Youtube, which has been making lessons on everything from World History to Philosophy to Astronomy.

There are lessons available for free on almost every subject. All you have to do is search.

The Future

Of course there are going to be issues with getting there. Individual teachers can’t take the initiative and do it themselves, since in the current system it would probably be seen as them not doing their jobs. Much of this change needs to come from the top down, and that only happens when we start to re-think the status quo and focus on effectiveness over tradition.

Look, today I could teach a kid far more effectively than public schools do. I could tailor their learning experience so they could advance just as fast or as slow as they needed to.

With the tools we have today the public school system could do the same, it just takes a mindset shift and a concerted effort from some smart people.

The public school system is a horrible failure in many ways, and if you can manage the logistics of it then homeschooling your child will already provide them with a much better education. The statistics prove it.

They can learn economics from a hedge-fund manager turned teacher (the founder of Khan Academy), calculus from an MIT professor, and astronomy from an actual astronomer.

And that’s all available for free, today.

If the public school system doesn’t adapt quickly, the disparity will become even greater; I won’t be able to put my kids into the public school system in good conscience.

Given the choice between an underpaid, overworked high school teacher and the most eloquent educators in the world, I’ll choose the latter every time. All it’ll cost me is the price of a cheap laptop and an internet connection, both of which I already have in my shitty apartment.

It baffles me as to why the U.S. spends more than $5,000 a year _per student _to do worse than that.

_Photo by Malate269 (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons_