California-based Morning Star Company, the world’s largest tomato processor, has no managers, but it has shown rapid increase in profits, low employee turnover and consistent innovation. In his book The Evolution of Everything, Matt Ridley describes how things work at Morning Star:
“The biologists who select new varieties of tomato, the farmhands who pick them, the factory workers who process them and the accountants in the office are all equally responsible. Expenditures are negotiated among colleagues and decisions are made collectively by those closest to the place where it will have most impact. Each employee has a colleague letter of understanding instead of a contract or letter of employment. This sets out not just their responsibilities, but also performance indicators. They write this letter themselves, negotiating its content and their pay with their peers based on past performance. The highest-paid employee receives only six times more than the lowest.”
As a Jewish educator, the Morning Star story raised a question: could we design a system that produces better outcomes with a fraction of the management costs generally involved in school operations?
For years, our community has been engaged in how to make Jewish education more affordable. These efforts generally divide along three lines: increasing philanthropic giving, lobbying governments to offset costs through the tax code, and lowering costs, largely through increasing class sizes that employ a blended learning model. But outside of the Jewish education world, there is another movement afoot to use blended learning as a means to teach to mastery and to create a disintermediating force in the classical classroom model of educational delivery.
Educator-entrepreneur Sal Khan summarizes this idea, arguing that, with the volume of educational content available online, we no longer need the classical grading scale that passes students on to the next level with only a fraction of the knowledge they set out to learn. After all, in what world, asks Khan, would a surveyor declare a building foundation 70 per cent complete and yet allow the construction to move on? Yet, in education, this is standard operating procedure.
Education can be broken down to three core components: communication of lesson, observation of learning and curation of material. In the classical model, the teacher spends a lot of time focused on communication, which is no small feat in a class of 15 to 25 diverse learners. As such, less time is available for observation and curation. This results in additional expenses devoted to department heads and student support professionals to help diagnose learning styles and organize content, as well as administrators to make sure the pieces function together. And yet, we still fail to teach to mastery, and students are pushed along with their age group at an average pace that leaves some behind and others bored.
Consider an alternative model in a Jewish high school setting:
• Each “school” is a cohort of 60 students who completed a primary school education.
• Five educators serve 60 students, specializing in broad disciplines, such as Judaic studies, math, science, English and arts, and history and social sciences.
• There are no age and grade divisions within the cohort. Instead, students move at their own pace through a series of skill sets that build upon the knowledge gained in the prior sets.
• Teachers use online resources to source, design and facilitate learning in discrete skill packages, and students are expected to achieve mastery (90+ score) in each.
In this alternative model, teachers would earn $140,000 per year with the following expectations:
• Teachers work through the summer to reflect on students, collaborate on curricular design and to prepare a wide range of differentiated instructional models using online and locally developed digital content.
• Teachers divide basic administrative duties among the cohort for scheduling, maintaining standards and enforcing communal expectations.
• Teachers remain active learners, advancing in their own fields and learning new areas based on specific educational plans for each student.
• The cohort has no professional
administration, student support or student activities.
A basic budget covering salaries, with additions for facilities and other expenses, yields a cost per student in a cohort of $12,500 per year. The combination of differentiated instruction and the expectation of mastery should allow students to progress at their own pace, accumulating specific skills and building their knowledge on solid academic foundations. On the slower end of the learning spectrum, we can imagine a minimum number of skills to master in order to graduate, and on the quicker end of the spectrum, an ever-growing set of skills that can be added to enrich and advance the educational experience.
Granted, there is much to fill in on the design details of this educational program, like how it could work with government requirements and assuring quality control. It’s also worth noting that this model will not serve as a panacea for all educational challenges. For example, students that require significant amounts of individualized attention, specifically in executive functioning and self-regulation, may still require additional assistance. But none of these obstacles strike me as insurmountable, while this structure increases individualized instruction, lowers costs and sets a higher expectation of knowledge acquisition than we currently have.
Imagine a community of Jewish educational cohorts, perhaps with a loose affiliation and opportunities for collaboration, but existing largely as independent entities, catering to different Jewish beliefs, tinkering and competing with the model and cost structure, and allowing meaningful innovation in education to run concurrently with broad price reduction in Jewish private schools.
Tomato processing is a long way from Jewish education, but perhaps an obscure company in California’s central valley has something to teach us about bottom-up design.