What Life is Like in the Hybrid Model

If you want to guarantee different outcomes, create a model which can’t reproduce the same errors. The hybrid model transforms education – three days at school, two at home. This one drastic change creates many unique consequences.

Class time is not wasted by long videos that can be watched at home, or by loading up dozens of computers on to the same app, teachers burning time, or other administrative interruptions. Teachers guide the student and her classmates through a lesson, teach new skills, and prepare students to accomplish a new task at home the next day. Everyone – teachers and students- work together to understand their mission for their upcoming home-day assignments. Working with classmates throughout the day, a shared sense of purpose and joy builds lasting friendships. When the day ends, students depart with their assignments in their planner and their books and notes.

On the home day, they budget their time to read, write, reflect, practice, and create. They have a job to do, and all tools they need to complete it. Parents oversee that they are being responsible, and teachers are available by email and phone. Over time students become the master of their studies and have skills in college that other freshmen have yet to even begin learning – namely the ability to be independent and learn on their own.

Is the Hybrid Model Good in itself?

What if the hybrid model forms on average more independent and dependable students?

What if the hybrid model provides the right balance of family and peer socialization?

What if the hybrid model wastes the least of amount of students’ time?

What if the hybrid model offers the same educational value as the best traditional schools at 60% the cost?

What if the hybrid model is best model of education for 50% of the school age population?

What if the hybrid model offers the optimum amount of flexibility and accountability for the average student?

What if the hybrid model is the model of education most fit for what the future will bring?

If even two of these are true, then the Hybrid Model is a great good.

Over 100 families have already chosen the hybrid model. It serves them well.

Judging By Courses Taught

If I were placed in history entirely by what courses I taught each year I would be a different person. Consider the courses that this teacher marshaled on the field of battle last year: Latin, Geometry, Church History, Medieval History, Writing, Logic, Rhetoric. Why wasn’t I wearing one of these?

Sounds like a Late Medieval University Professor. I should have worn a robe and cap like so…

The different hats represent current grades – hair-net wearing ones being the ‘A students.’

This next year I am either moving into further into the future or deeper into the past. With Ancient History, Latin, Geometry, Morality, and Economics, I would think one of two things must be true. Either this person is a juggler fit for the circus, or he is literally from the school of Stoics.

Now the stoics had a great porch-game.

If I had a porch like this, darn right, I would have a lot of philosophical followers. We would play table tennis, offer libations, discuss the intricacies of corn-hole, and then test our theories with libations in one hand and a bag of potential life-giving seeds in the other. All in accord with the Logos.

But perhaps I am actually reenacting the life of someone at the other end of history, an Adam Smith who wrote on morality and economics and certainly knew his ancient history, or a statesman like John Stuart Mill, whose father forced him to learn Greek by age 12 and carved out from ancient philosophy and personal experience modern theories of liberty, economy, and ethics.

The Greek language was contained in that bump on his head. Greek is like that.

To follow in the footsteps of these greats is good, but to pass on the best that I have discovered in my own life to others is an honor. Perhaps laboring in the human flourishing mines is the best one can do.

“I loaded 16 tons of enriched Geometry, and what did I get?”

I get a lot out of it.

Why Economics and Probability Should be Part of Classical Education

Discussing prudence, St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Isidore of Seville, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.” Economics is the modern term for this ancient prudence, for the principles of economics allow us to foretell the likely consequences of an action, event, or law and then decide whether the prior action is desirable. Prudence, then, is our goal in such a class. This intellectual virtue empowers moral virtue to fulfill its ends.

When I was a kid, I had no interest in economics or money (except that one could use it to get things). I thought econ was for people obsessed with superficial stuff. By the time I was in high school, I had renounced superficial stuff and was trying to attain whatever high school me thought was wisdom, which turned out to be an exclusive focus on literature, poetry, and religion.

I was converted into an interest in economics when I learned about how incentives influence people’s behavior, and that people’s seemingly bad actions are more often unfortunate economic effects rather than deliberate maliciousness. People do what they think is good for themselves and those they care about by following incentives. In short, I learned not to jump to blaming individuals for the way things are and instead to think through what dynamics made things become the way they are. This study, just as the literature I love, reveals much about the tragedy of the human condition.

An economist as an economist studies how these games of exchange and choice work and how changes in the rules or environment will change behaviors of the players in the game. The ideal economist can foretell the effects of different actions, events, or laws with a high probability of being right.

The Armenian economist Alchian wrote, “What the economist can do with economic analysis is to deduce some of the consequences of a proposed act, presumably more accurately than a noneconomist. But to assess and appraise whether the consequences of the action are good or bad is, to the economist, forbidden fruit. Yet, like Adam, many economists eat of it.”

I have greatly enjoyed Alchian’s beautiful book Universal Economics from which I took this quotation, but no one is only an economist, and as sons and daughters of Adam, we need to learn how to appraise the likely consequences of an action AND judge whether the consequences are good or bad, for distinguishing good from evil is the most important thing for living a good life. I don’t know to what extent prudence can be taught, but I do know that the study of probability and economics lays the groundwork for wise decision making in personal, business, and political life.

If a classical education wishes to carry the torch of those liberal arts, which liberate people to know what is true and do what is good, then, strange as it may sound, the principles of economics and probability is not optional.

Wisdom from the West

How St. Benedict is a Model for Civilizational Catholicism

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict two aspects struck me as especially important for civilization. First, Benedict’s injunction to abbots to take council with all the members of the society whenever making a large decision. “Hear even what the youngest has to say” clearly indicates that the distribution of valuable input throughout the monastery is not uniform. Wisdom can come from the mouths of the youth, just as from the learned. Thus, the wise person will seek input from the community before making decisions.

As a teacher and administrator  it is so useful getting feedback from students about things that do and do not work, certainly learning at a graduation party that some aspect of one’s teaching does not work is far too late. We must be upfront about providing useful feedback and soliciting it too. Constant improvement is a part of the Christian journey to Holy Wisdom. Hence the examination of conscience, hence St. Benedict’s injunction to the abbot to always seek counsel even in small matters.

To promote wisdom at JPII, we have the house system. The house system provides students the opportunity to be leaders, to organize activities, promote virtue, and provide feedback. Any student with something to offer becomes a participant in the school culture as opposed to passive recipients of it.

Parents, as well, craft our school culture. Feedback and active participation from parents is the bedrock of a hybrid school. The privileged position of parents as first educators and facilitators 2 days each week means that they know things about their students that teachers and administration might not know. This goes both ways, and thus communication is not only necessary for our function but is the beginning of our wisdom.

The second bit of wisdom I gleaned this week from the Rule of St. Benedict was his emphasis upon the equality of the monks with regard to things of the world. Wealth, rank, and honor from the previous life count for nothing in the life of this community, only virtue distinguishes monks from each other. The fundamental Christian dignity shared by all monks alike is enforced by the Rule. This might seem a small thing, but the belief in equal dignity of people before the Rule is a fundamental principle of Western society, which now is based on equality before the law.

The Rule sets out to supply a model of monastic society that closely approximates the true city of God. It is a real constitution for a model Christian society. There is no doubt that Benedictine monasteries, and monasteries based on the same principles, spread throughout all of Europe and saved its civilization in the early Middle Ages. Would there be any “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal” without these monasteries enculturating this “self-evident” truth for millennia? Certainly, much more also had to happen, but nonetheless, it can honestly be proclaimed, that without St. Benedict’s constitution, we would not have had the necessary model for a community of equal citizens which gives modern law its moral force.

For us the lesson of St. Benedict could be that even a small community can one day be a cornerstone of civilization. “Let us build our school community on the same foundations, for civilization may depend on it!”

But that conclusion, would be too easy and would ignore a complicated dynamic. There is a tension between the Rule of St. Benedict and what Benedictine Monasteries came to represent. Their purpose is the life of prayer and poverty, not civilization building. The fact that they became something more than a human attempt at the City of God and became so many centers serving the needs of man, the needs of literacy and manuscripts, of food and even at times defense, indicates a drift in the plan towards fulfilling the needs of the moment. The question of conformity then arises. Who is conforming to whom? In the 13th century Benedictine monasteries no longer had a role as the centers of learning, they were superseded by the great medieval universities. But nevertheless, Benedictine orders, and other religious orders, and the culture that sustains such things, continues to produce consequential scholars and scientists, technicians and inventors through to 2020. The culture of Catholic religious orders is astonishingly capable of maintaining that tension between holy purpose and worldly service over millennia.

In the novel The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) Father Jacobus is a great Benedictine monk and statesman at the same time, serving both the functions of international diplomacy in a life dedicated to that higher purpose. Even when the Order serves the world, it receives its nourishment and direction from faith, and so it is merely looking for a practical way to apply a few centuries of acquired wisdom. The true lesson, I think, is about the relationship between high culture and the needs of civilization. Decoupled they both become dangerous to each other.

Arrested Development: Costs of Distance Learning on the Future

With schools around the country examining their options on how to educate despite the ongoing pandemic, it is critical to take a clear look at the potential impact of moving to distance learning. The effects of distance learning on the local community will be measured in decades not years. The returns on education are cumulative over the course of a person’s lifetime and impact far more than the individual alone. One might suspect that the sudden reorganization of our schooling infrastructure into distance learning will not yield the same level of quality as years previous. But what can current research tell us about this achievement gap between the students who will distance learn this year and the counterfactual brick-and-mortar schooling they would otherwise receive?

A 2011 paper by Raj Chetty suggests a good elementary teacher can increase a student’s lifetime earnings by up to 1% each year, because good teachers help students strengthen their social skills and character traits, in addition to teaching the material. Over the course of a career, that difference can spiral into hundreds of thousands of dollars of lifetime earnings, which in turn can be the difference between a community attracting investment or stagnating and backsliding.

Can these non-cognitive skills be passed on remotely? Can a teacher bring two students together to resolve conflict when there is extraordinarily little social interaction happening under her eye? Can a remote school provide good examples and a sense of belonging through civil rites? The answer seems obviously to be no. So, the value of good elementary teachers as leaders of civic virtue will be lost for distance learners this year, and 2020 will initiate the first catastrophic step backward in education in this country’s history.

Socialization effects are one thing, but what can we expect from academics? Unfortunately, the picture there inspires little hope. Graduation rates at virtual charter schools hover around 50% compared to the public-school average of 84%, according to a 2019 analysis from the National Education Policy Center. While the defenders of virtual charter schools say they are helping disadvantaged students, their detractors point out that virtual schools are enrolling a lower rate of low-income students than national brick-and-mortar schools. There is no reason to adjudicate this dispute now, but it is possible that students who enroll in virtual charters for some reason were having a hard time “making it” in a brick and mortar environment, regardless of their socioeconomic status, say because of behavioral issues or a teen pregnancy. Perhaps, but this defense still points to the importance of the social dynamics of school which coerce otherwise failed students to hand in those three missing assignments that will allow them to skirt by with a ‘D.’ Maybe the difference between these two hypothetical students is only social, not academic. But the academic and communal aspects of school are linked, and having the right social environment makes learning Algebra possible.

Consequently, we should expect distance learners to have achievement levels closer to virtual charter schools than to the public-school average. And hence the academic losses will be severe. The National Education Policy Center’s 2019 report on virtual schools cites a half-dozen statewide reports each revealing lower achievement on statewide tests for reading and especially mathematics. A similar deficit seems highly likely for 2020-2021, a year in which Spring quarter came to a screeching halt, summer offered few remedial educational programs, and Fall will return many students to distance learning without all the added benefits of three quarters of rapport and camaraderie within the classroom as happened last year. Digital truancy and absenteeism have already proven hard to stop and remedial help harder to provide.

If these deficiencies are not addressed before graduation, graduation rates will fall. According to Lochner and Moretti’s 2004 study the societal benefit of a 1% increase in male graduation rates is worth more than $2 billion. With graduation rates poised to go other direction, we may see devastating long-term effects on the local community. Opportunities for continued education and better jobs will shrivel up as the achievement gap among students becomes palpable. The second order effects will include poorer families, increased criminality, and a decrease in ability to adapt and contribute to our complex society.

However, this gloomy picture is not our fate. Online charters typically have high student-teacher ratios and low engagement. Since teachers are teaching their normal group of students, teacher-student ratios will not become worse. Schools still have many resources to bring to students’ neighborhoods. Remedial help might be offered in person. Perhaps, some social capital from years previous will carry over and mitigate the losses. And many of the students in these classes will know each other and will certainly be spending their afternoons playing together. Already many schools, like Macomb Illinois Public School, are bussing food to families twice a day. All these things could help, but parents will be stressed, supervision scarce, and the many cracks in our systems threaten to become fateful chasms.

There is still hope that schools will find ways to test and trace, that lockdowns will become dynamic and based on community spread of the virus, that a daily testing regime will surface allowing us to measure whether individuals are infectious, and that districts will support remedial help for those who quite literally need their hands held. For years, staunch public-school advocates have declared the irreplaceability of the traditional model, given its better educational outcomes than distance learning, especially for disadvantaged students, and teachers have been building their pedagogies on social-emotional learning which requires in-person interaction to be most effective. Now is a good time to try to maximize the public schools’ capacity to provide quality education, despite necessary restrictions.

At the same time, this unfortunate disruption opens new opportunities for us as a society to experiment and build better educational models (in the full sense of that word: ‘educational’) and to work with our local communities to make systems which suit them. In the future, we will see far more hybrid schools which blend brick-and-mortar instruction with at-home practice, microschools which gather students into small educational groups with a professional facilitator, homeschooling pods and co-ops as thousands of people have already joined Facebook groups with the intent to homeschool in the past few months. Both parents and educators will be iterating over these models, fashioning them from the ground up to rebuild civil society, improve academic accomplishment, and prepare the way for greater social flourishing. The wreckage in education might be severe, but resolute communities who find a way to educate anyway will become the new leaders in America.

Origins of the House System

There is no better way to perpetuate and reinforce brutal high school social hierarchy and favoritism than with a house system. That, at least, was my first experience of houses as a high school student. There were four houses which would compete in three projects a year upon which they would be judged and given points. In addition, teachers could give and take away points at will. Favoritism was rife, the ad hoc character of the program was extremely evident even to this fairly dense participant. Seeing people get rewarded for random things and fail to get punished for others served to heighten the sense of cosmic injustice that I felt was becoming a ubiquitous feature of my world. If I had read Harry Potter, I would have known that the Wizarding World suffered from a similarly high level of under-evolved social reward mechanisms.

However, despite the wretchedness of the system I was a part of, I still felt some love and solidarity for my house. It was one of few instances where I was able to hang out with students above my grade level and work alongside them on a project. When the program was disbanded, I felt it was the rightful death of terribly dysfunctional system. Nonetheless, wistful waves of nostalgia stopped me from rejoicing. When I set out to create a House System myself it began with one grade level. A teacher and I decided to split the freshman class into three groups for competitions. Between the two of us we taught this group over half of their courses, so by dividing them up into semi-permanent groups we would have ready-made teams which could compete for points that would accumulate across all four classes. There was no way to lose points, each game had the rules for points laid out beforehand, and the teams were designed by myself and the other teacher.

We created three teams because three divides into more numbers than four and because teams of four would be too small within a grade level. That was the beginning. In those days we had a lot of fun socially engineering the teams in different ways as my fellow teacher and I would switch up student teams each quarter. But the ultimate form of the house system was a random draw of the cards. The key reason for this was that we feared that any system which allowed for partiality would end in partiality. I didn’t want people seeing the house they were selected into as the arbitrary whim of a human, but like the Sorting Hat’s Song and pronouncement, something outside of human hands. Trust to the heart of the cards, to Providence.

Reading A Cooperative Species alerted me to social concepts of fairness and reward in behavioral economics. A key takeaway for me was that in iterated games people would tend towards cooperation and that people are generally altruistic if they are recognized for their altruism and see free riders get punished. It was around these ideas that I tried to fashion the official House System.

The first rule in my mind was that everyone had to have equal opportunity for points. Thus, points could only be acquired through clearly defined rules: like an A on a test or essay, taking the SAT, working on the Virtue of the Month project, winning in a classroom game. There would be no way to lose points. This would be a system for positive reinforcement only.

The second rule was to actually tell students when they received points, either orally or in writing. It is hard to be motivated or feel positive reinforcement from rewards you didn’t know you received. In addition, the house points total had to be public knowledge so that students who, for example, received an A on a test would both see the mark of PLUS ONE POINT on the paper and see the number on the BIG BOARD rise. In this way, individual excellence helps the whole team.

The third rule was being on the lookout for free riders. I have only been able so far to punish one level of free-rider: the egregious foot dragger, i.e. students who don’t show up to house (or are perpetually late). The secretary of each house brings me an attendance sheet afterwards so that I can discipline students who are late (or if you prefer verbosity “use self-reflective behavioral alteration techniques to encourage positive socialization”).

Each of the Three Houses has three months for which they create activities promoting the Virtue of the Month by any means they can. The House as whole receives points for the inventiveness and effectiveness of their virtue program.

In practice, I knew that this would go poorly the first few years as students had to be coached towards making the system work. And indeed, there is still lots of room for improvement (I will discuss the numerous weaknesses in a moment). One key innovation in the past two years having each house elect officers which then make up the Student Council. This created a group of mobilizing agents who have enough clout to encourage their peers to participate and get things done for their house, like homeroom cleanup at the end of the day.

Students (usually elected members) sometimes come to me and say that their house is too chaotic, that “no one cares” about the house, and that they can’t get anything done. The students are basically right about this, except on one point: the exaggerated “No one”. At least, 60% of students want their house to be the best (or at least better), are willing to do extra work to make it so, and feel some self-righteous belonging with their house. In addition, they like that they have the opportunity to mix with students who are not in their classes. So I tell them, “Yeah, the House System doesn’t motivate everyone, and it does need improvement. But it is motivating for a good number of students, and we can bring that number up if we fix the problems.”

Now here are the current problems:

1) Teachers do not give house points to students for doing well on tests and such. If every teacher just wrote to students when they gave them feedback +1 House when they deserved it and let me know, then students would receive a lot more points and the competition would feel more real.

2) The Virtue of the Month activities can get hung up by a lack of organization or ideation on the part of the students.

3) Scores are not updated to the big board quickly. This is exacerbated by the low level of teacher participation, which disincentivizes me from updating the scores.

I think these problems can all be remedied. But it is difficult to make the process streamlined enough to improve upon it. My current view of the house system is very positive. This past year students ran almost the entire thing themselves. There is still an immense amount of room to make the student experience better, but after four years, we are close to making a system which students can be very proud of.

Classical Education and Industrial Civilization: A New Course

Nearly all of the Founding Fathers of the United States, with the notable exception of Ben Franklin who was sui generis and brilliant and in fact still serves my point despite not being what at the time was an “educated man,” looked to the Classics for practical wisdom. By practical wisdom, I mean neither technical guidance nor some philosophical ruminations deduced from axioms and postulates, but rather something harder to grasp: the wisdom that comes from dealing with the messiness of reality. They believed that by studying the political, historical, and philosophical works of antiquity light could be shed upon their own situation so that they could master it. Their purpose was not merely to understand history but to make it, to intervene in it. At its best, history gives us both who we are, where we have come from, and the tools we need to intervene in it.

When I was a confused youth, I believed in what might be called philosophical wisdom. I had this caricature in my head of Cicero who studied philosophy in his youth and thus was fit to rule in old age. I would commit my youth to the intellectual life and my adulthood to leadership, like Cicero. In fact, I knew nothing about Cicero. But I believed in the myth of Cicero and myth of the ideal Roman who worked in the fields all day, traveled late into town to debate politics, and returned home still later to eat a bowl of black gruel. I hoped that my study of philosophy would make me a great debater of affairs of state, someone who could cut the Gordian knot of any problem. And while it is true, so true, that philosophy does not cease rewarding those who study her, for Aristotle was right to say that contemplation of true things is one of the finest pleasures of life, there was another part of Aristotle I had somehow missed.

In Book 6 of the Ethics, Aristotle makes a distinction between practical wisdom and philosophical wisdom. Philosophical wisdom is the search for truth, contemplation of it, and enjoyment of ideas. Reading Isaac Newton’s Principia is an intoxicating Caribbean cruise for the philosophical mind. But philosophical wisdom is in some sense transcendent, our enjoyment of it is an intensely individual experience. The positive benefits of such study in other ways are far enough downstream from the study itself, that the person who partakes must primarily be motivated by a sense of wonder, not a sense of strict efficiency (though oftentimes the long way round is the only way!). Philosophy requires time and there is no law of the universe that all philosophical wisdom will have public utility. Practical wisdom on the other hand is directed more towards public utility. Aristotle describes it as the capacity to calculate and act with respect to the goods of human affairs. It is practical wisdom that discovers and implements better management strategies, improved processes for construction, discovers medicines, and secures the common good.

I have said before that classical civilization is the perfect sandbox for students to play around with the primary questions and concepts of civilization. The Greek and Roman world is of a manageable complexity, distant yet familiar, something we can both approach with impartiality and yet make our own. And more than this, understanding the rise and fall of the classical world teaches us valuable lessons about the hard work of building, preserving, and extending civilization. The early Americans fostered their own practical wisdom out of study of the classics, recent history, and personal experience with law and mercantilism. What will we find in the classics to help us today? There is always something.

Practical wisdom today in industrialized civilization needs both the wisdom of the classics and the wisdom of the present. Today’s world is extremely complicated. How many of today’s problems are caused simply because the world is complex, and many people were not taught how to navigate it? Building, preserving, and extending present civilization cannot happen without educators taking the herculean effort to get a grip on industrialized society and fill the gap between modern history and modern science with practical wisdom. This is work that has yet to be done. While it has been proposed that we need a new science of progress, another way to see the problem is that we need more people who can teach us both how to thrive amidst the complexity, maintain the fragile good things we have achieved, and build towards something better and higher. We need to teach people to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for themselves and society, not just with regard to health or wealth say, but about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general. This task is hard, and it is well past time to begin.

Or to put it in old Ben Franklin’s jovial pithiness, “I find the best way to serve God is by serving my fellow man.” This from a newspaper printer whose contributions to civilizational progress included everything from a guide on how to swim, to roasting a turkey with electricity, to founding a fire brigade, a militia, and a library, and hosting a Constitutional Convention.

Hybrid Resilience

At JPII our snow days are work from home days. The work is a little lighter than a normal at-home work day, and teachers have to make sure a little new content with practice still gets presented. However, the occasional snow day gives teachers, parents, and students practice at remote learning. Having a system in place for remote learning is another way in which the hybrid model proves flexible and resilient.

Even when separated by distance our community hangs together and keeps learning and growing.