80% School for 20% Cost?

I read somewhere recently, might have been Seth Godin or Clay Shirky, that we’re entering a world in which you can get 80% of the original product for 20% of the cost — if it’s informational in nature. It’s been bugging me a lot, tickling on the back of my brain. Wish I could find the original reference, and include a link to it here.


I’m guessing that my school (90 years old this year) represents around $50 million in assets. It costs a student quite a large sum of money to come here, something akin to $40,000 a year…

But for $10 million in assets, and around $8,000 a year, it’s conceivable that a new school could replicate 80% of the student experience here.

This bugs me. It bugs me a lot. Because it suggests that with new tech and new investment, we could solve a lot of America’s educational woes with a wave of the magic-dollar wand… and that’s clearly not the case.

But say you had $10 million, and that was your budget for starting a new school. If you design well, you’d get another $1.6 million in September when school opens and parents pay the tuition (in theory). But your school has to provide the equivalent of 80% of programs and services that it does now…

What would you keep? What would you toss? What would need to change? How would you leverage technology, computers, and networks to solve some of the problems? How would you build the school of the future, if you could, today?

I confess, I don’t know. I’m going to think on it some more, and when I do, I’ll tag the entries with #80/20.

How would you spend $10 million to start a new school?

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One comment

  1. All institutional budgets are similar in that there’s a huge “essential” core, and then the flexible edges where most of the trims, cuts and extensions happen. If anyone’s really going to look at 80/20 schools, that model of planning and budgeting is worthless.

    The obvious way to make a 20% school is to completely cut out the physical aspects. Knowing nothing of their budget or fees, I’d suggest Stanford’s EPGY ( http://epgy.stanford.edu/ohs/ ) as a reasonable model for how this works for 9-12s. Flexible course loads, global enrollment, structured social interactions for students, and “outsourced” proctoring for exams. It’s an interesting set of choices, but I’m not sure I’d want to teach their exclusively, and I don’t think it scales down to middle grades *at all*.

    I think physical presence, peer and adult interaction, a sense of common “non-home” space, and social ritual are all essential parts of the school experience. The only way I could see to 20% those costs is to only have 20% of the population in place at once. Say that half the staff is only responsible for teaching online courses, and the other half teaches hybrid courses (most online, some “real” classes, some off-campus experience ed). Each grade has a report day where they come to school, meet as a social body, work with their teachers, share accomplishments and tackle big labs. Those days set the agenda and structure for the next week on online work.

    This model would let you greatly reduce the school’s space and infrastructure requirements. Many of the most difficult space uses would just be outsourced – athletics through local Y or county programs, for starters. Maybe your whole school is one good lab, one theater, two social rooms and one kitchen.

    You’d also economize on faculty. On-line only teachers could be hired at-will on a per-course basis, probably without benefits! (Hooray cry the business managers) Admin compacts, facilities compacts, tech compacts — although everyone is required to follow at least one grade/class as a non-instructing participant in all online discussions. I actually see that as being a reasonable position for this phantom school; someone who is literally a co-learner and discussion agitator. Teachers who have on-site responsibilities might teach only one or two classes to compensate for the added responsibilities of their social on-line role.

    I don’t know if I’d want to teach at this strange place, but it could cut some costs and do *most* of what we expect from a middle/high school. Some of it would be much better – these strange hybrid courses would depend on student interest, and the big swaths of on-line time would push everyone towards projects that have a meaning outside of the school walls/wiki.

    It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think you could go much younger than 6th grade with this model. The younger the students, the less school is about “information” in the way Godin means it. Elementary education is about community and presence, and those will be tied to human interactions in physical space for young children for many years to come.

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