A couple of weeks ago, I learned about “price points” by speaking at a conference for those who design hotels and restaurants. As many readers may know, the price point is the approximate amount someone is willing to pay for such things as kitchen cabinets, faucets, sinks, and bathroom tile. All of these commodities come in a zillion different shapes, sizes, materials, and—of course—prices. If a designer does not know the customer’s price point, too much time can be spent promoting a gold-plated door knob when a brass one will do. On the other side, the designer can annoy a customer by promoting something plastic when only brass is acceptable.
Students have their own version of the price point—the material they are ready to learn. If teachers repeat familiar material, bored students will stare out the window or practice their spitball skills. Conversely, teachers who introduce excessively advanced material will leave their students confused and dissatisfied.
Each and every student has his or her own price point. The range can be narrowed by creating small, tracked classes, but unless the course is a tutorial, the problem of uneven price points can never be eliminated. In large, heterogeneous classes with students from varying linguistic backgrounds, some of whom are in need of special education, the teacher may begin to feel more helpless than a designer confronted by an opinionated couple with strikingly diverse views on what the family can afford.
It’s no wonder that every close study of the American high school since Theodore R. Sizer wrote Horace’s Compromise has found, like Sizer, that “the American high school student, as student, is all too often docile, compliant, and without initiative.” As the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham put it: “Working on problems that are of the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant.”
As I explain in Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, education customized to the needs and circumstances of students has been the dream of progressive educators since John Dewey. Today, the search for that price point has been legalized. Special educators are required by federal law to come up with individualized education plans that customize programming to the particular needs of a child with disabilities. Struggles over bilingual education are difficult to resolve because the correct mix of native- and English-language instruction can vary with each child’s age and background. Getting to the price point has proved elusive for the simple reason that each child is ready to learn a somewhat different body of material, and each learns best in a somewhat different way.
Education customized to the needs and circumstances of students has been the dream of progressive educators since John Dewey. Today, the search for the price point has been legalized."
But now, for the first time, technology is making it possible to teach to a student’s price point. As Howard Gardner put it: “So long as we insist on teaching all students the same subjects in the same way, progress will be incremental. But now for the first time it is possible to individualize education—to teach each person what he or she needs and wants to know in ways that are most comfortable and most efficient.” Adaptive testing—of the kind currently used for law school exams—can quickly identify a student’s reading, math, and science skills, and the curriculum can then be adapted to the student’s performance level. New York City’s “School of One” tried the idea out last summer to great applause—Time magazine named it one of the top 50 inventions of the year. The program is now in operation in three middle schools.
The Florida Virtual School, or FLVS, is using its teachers as coaches to help students find their price points within the online instructional material. The school’s chief executive officer, Julie Young, tells her teachers: “Guys, we are about teaching kids, not teaching content. They all learn differently, and we adjust our content to our kids.” FLVS’ motto: “Any time, any place, any path, any pace.” And, in the state of Washington, a school is asking top-level teachers in Mexico to provide online instruction to its Spanish-speaking high schoolers—while otherwise keeping the students locally immersed in an English-speaking environment.
All of these explorations into price-point teaching and learning are but baby steps in the right direction. To open the door to a truly child-centered future, an appropriate policy context needs to be established. Most important, virtual education and brick-and-mortar schooling need to be juxtaposed, so that they both complement and compete with each other.
In Florida, for example, any high school student has the option of taking a course online, from the Florida Virtual School or in the classroom of the local high school. Success in either setting is recorded on the high school transcript and counts toward a diploma. State funding goes to the school from which the student took the course.
The policy design has proved to be an ideal change-maker. More than 200,000 online courses are currently being taken at FLVS, up from just a few thousand a decade ago. As word spreads, the school’s upward trajectory continues. While it has the same incentive as district schools to make courses as attractive as possible, the virtual school has the upper hand, as it can constantly upgrade its curriculum by exploiting the new adaptive, interactive curriculum that technology is now making available. No wonder many districts are beginning to find ways of offering virtual instruction themselves.
Other states would do well to take a good look at the Florida policy design. Even better, the Obama administration’s Investing in Innovation, or “i3,” initiative should underwrite experimentation in the advanced technologies needed and foster the state policy contexts necessary to allow the distribution of high-quality virtual courses nationwide. A Brookings Institution panel has recommended a regional or national accrediting framework.
Imagine our best universities receiving per-pupil compensation for terrific, nationally accredited high school courses that could be taken online and applied to high school transcripts in every state. Imagine a joint venture between the nation’s best educators and its most powerful innovators that would offer courses such as three-dimensional biology, in which student avatars could dissect frog avatars 17 times in a row, without killing a single amphibian. With those kinds of educational opportunities, the high school student price point would certainly rise.
A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Finding the Student’s ‘Price Point’