Cost Disease in Education

At Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander writes a post on a pretty important question: why do things cost so much more these days, without there being any particular benefit to the average person? Like he mentions, there are many people who think they know the obvious answer, but they disagree on what the obvious answer is. For my part, I think the answer cannot ignore the fact that the cost disease is happening at a time of ballooning inequality, something that Alexander mostly elided in the original post. All the same, in my field of education, I think a part of the explanation lies in a combination of Alexander’s points #4 (increased regulation), #2 (things like administrative bloat), #6 (reduced risk tolerance) and #5 (fear of litigation). I wouldn’t necessarily put the negative gloss on this that that implies, though.

Here is how I would tell this part of the story. Our society used to be run in a way that was basically majoritarian. I mean that in the sense that the institutions of society were created explicitly with the majority in mind. With time, though, as a society, we seem to be gradually, fitfully moving towards the idea that institutions of society need to cater to everyone in the society. This is the aspiration that guides naming US education law “No Child Left Behind”, etc. However, this gradual change has come with a huge increase in cost, because accommodation of everyone is disproportionately expensive.

In my day-to-day work as an instructor, I see very clear examples of this dynamic.

For instance, I used to use the whiteboard in my classroom to explain material I was covering. My students would take notes based on what I wrote. However, not everyone in my class is necessarily able to take notes (I’ve had students who were veterans with hand tremors, for example). So, I switched to taking notes on paper, projecting the notes on a document camera, and then scanning the paper afterwards and posting it online so that people in my class can have a record of what happened in class, even if they can’t take notes.

This solved the problem for those unable to take notes, but it created a new one. Any piece of material posted online needs to have alt text so that online material is accessible to the vision impaired. If I made handwritten notes in class, I would have needed to recreate the notes after class in a typed version as an alt-text. Which is difficult to do, because the notes involve a lot of diagrams and mathematical symbols.

Therefore, I needed to go to a third system, preferably one without a lot of in-class handwritten notes. So now I prepare my notes electronically beforehand, show them in sequence, and if something does come up that requires new notes, I have to then type it up after class.

The amount of work involved for me is significantly greater than the original “writing on the board” method. Whereas the benefit to most students is not there. Most people can take notes, and don’t need this procedure. The fact that my notes are pre-arranged has some positives, but also some negatives in terms of flexibility in responding to questions, etc. In addition, since students know the notes are available, they are less likely to take notes. Whether taking notes helps one learn or not is very individual — but I would say on the whole it does. So, the entire endeavour I would guess makes my students less successful on average. It probably is enough to cancel out the on average one student per quarter who needs note-taking help.

Meanwhile, it’s true that people who need one kind of accommodation are not the same people who need another kind of accommodation. In fact, the number of students I’ve had who both requested notes and needed alt-text for online materials is zero.

So, let’s sum up the previous anecdote. The overall results are that I have to do a bunch of extra work, at no net benefit to students. In addition, we need new equipment (a document camera), and tech support (to set up this camera and the associated recording software). We also need administrators from accessibility services: someone needs to interview the students with special needs to figure out what those needs are and how they can be accommodated. Someone needs to explain this to me. And someone needs to monitor that I am in fact doing this.

Scott Alexander can look at the situation and say “well, the overall performance in zolltan’s class seems to have gone down, and the cost has gone up tremendously. The mystery of cost disease strikes again!” — and that’d be correct.

However, if we are to take seriously our mission to educate the public, then it should also be the case that we educate the public, and not just those who we find it convenient to educate. So this is not a case of an obviously bad decision as much as choosing between real tradeoffs.

Is this the right choice? Is it worth it? I tend to think that in the case of public education, it is. But the question is not at all an easy one. And answering it needs the participation of people whom it directly affects most of all — i.e., those students who need accommodation.

I don’t claim that this explains all of cost disease everywhere, or even much of it, necessarily. But what it does for me is put in context the complaints about bureaucratic inefficiency and how private companies can be streamlined while the government just wastes your money. You don’t have to ask whether private companies are more efficient than public ones to figure out why the price of public education is increasing. You just note that, say, educating 95% of the people is a lot, lot cheaper than educating all of them.

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