In Education, Length Matters

Jan Steen: School Teacher (ca. 1668) // Public domain

When people say “innovative improvement”, they immediately think of cars that don’t need to be driven; medicines that cure an incurable disease or vegetables that taste like meat. But an important innovation can also be a relatively unremarkable thing, such as shortening time. For example, to get from point A to point B, or to grow fruit from a plant, or the necessary hospital stay after a surgery.

However, there is an area where similar innovations have frozen, or are even going in the opposite direction. I am talking about education. In education, the number of years that children spend in school is constantly increasing. In doing so, the quality and quantity of the education that they receive on successful completion of all levels does not seem to be growing in proportion to this.

There are many indications that young people are spending more time in school than is necessary. For example, it is suspicious that the vast majority of university courses take the same length of time (3 + 2 years), whether in professions as diverse as teaching, IT, molecular biology, agriculture, or management or journalism.

Not to mention those graduates for whom tAnother specificly Slovak problem is the share of engineers and masters’ graduates in the number of graduates, which is the highest in the world. Slovak students spend more years at university than is common abroad. he entire course of study was largely useless because they were employed in positions that do not require tertiary education.

We have similar indications in secondary education. Here, the national curriculum defines exactly the number of years of secondary education. And the length of study correlates perfectly with its academic difficulty – from two-year apprenticeships, to three-year vocational schools, to four-year gymnasiums and vocational schools.

But why can’t there also be super high-quality and challenging two- or three-year vocational schools that prepare young people quickly and well for the labor market or for further study?

They exist abroad. In the UK, for example, they have ‘T level education’, which is two years of practical secondary education, even in more demanding subjects, which, if completed, allows entry into the labor market or further study. In Slovakia, however, you wouldn’t get a similar innovation in education. Yet the potential is certainly there. For example, from high-quality, private secondary schools that teach useful and practical IT skills.

The reason why this demand for shorter, quality education is coming from private schools is obvious. In the private sector, providers’ desire to inflate spending is limited by consumers’ willingness to pay. There is a feedback loop that knocks down lofty ideas about long years spent in education.

If a quality secondary school can produce a quality graduate in 3 years instead of 4, it will save a quarter of its costs. That means it can cut the price by a quarter! That means more satisfied primary customers – students, but also more satisfied secondary customers – employers. It’s a win-win-win.

Compare that to the public sector. Public schools don’t mind if a student takes a year or two longer to warm up with them. On the contrary, they are still fine with it because they get paid by the state for the years they have taught. This is regardless of how heavily they dictate their education service.

Nothing motivates them to keep a lid on the man-hours taught and to deliver graduates to the labor market as soon as possible. And it’s a similar story on the customer side of public schools. We should not expect too much pressure for time efficiency in return for free education.

What to do about it? There are a number of ways to allow innovation to emerge in the form of more efficient ways of managing time in education. Rewrite the numbers and strict requirements in state curricula to allow high schools to seek optimal length of study.

Or create a new tier of secondary schools along the lines of the UK. Or even allow the creation of parallel freer schools that are not bound in the straitjacket of the state curriculum. What certainly won’t help, however, is to pretend that 4 years of full secondary education is an unquestioned truth revealed by officials.

The article was originally published in Slovak in Denník N

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