Discover more from The Achievement Plateau
Can flight simulators end the achievement plateau?
Pilots train for years. Teachers train for weeks.* Is that right?
A few months back I was driving through suburban Indianapolis (visiting my wife’s family) and noticed two huge flight simulators through the glass windows of a newly-constructed building off Highway 31.
I began thinking about the flight we had just taken to get to Indy — a turbulent, two-hour ride from Boston — and feeling grateful that our pilots successfully navigated the choppy conditions. They even reassured us several times throughout the flight: nothing to worry about, folks.
Pilots are required to spend at least two days in a flight simulator every six months to maintain their license. They spend that time practicing normal takeoffs and landings as well as “non-regular” events, like an engine failure at takeoff.
Years ago, the airline industry came together to prioritize safety. They view it as fundamental to their business. After all, no one wants to get on an airplane if there’s a reasonable chance they won’t survive. That collective effort to prioritize safety has yielded an incredible track record. According to a study from MIT, the rate of fatalities “is now one death per 7.9 million passenger boardings, compared to one death per 2.7 million boardings during the period 1998-2007, and one death per 1.3 million boardings during 1988-1997.”
While our progress in improving literacy and math outcomes has remained relatively flat in the last three decades, flying has gotten nearly 7 times safer. In education, we tolerate teachers struggling through their first few years — essentially using students as their training apparatus. But airlines don’t tolerate that level of failure. So what can we learn from this?
More teacher training. This isn’t a new or novel idea, but using something like flight simulators is. Last year I wrote about the potential for using the Metaverse to train teachers. The latest developments in AI make it realistic to design “classroom simulators” that mirror the normal and non-normal events teachers might encounter in classrooms. In addition to their annual simulator training, pilots need to have at least 1500 hours of flying experience before getting hired by a commercial airline. Teachers, on the other hand, can be hired without so much as a college degree (yes, only in some states…but still!).
Embrace standardization. Standard operating procedures, or SOPs, are, well, standard in aviation — they’re used by pilots, air traffic controllers, and flight attendants to dictate their responses to all sorts of events. Not so much in teaching. As a principal in Philadelphia, a district with almost 200 schools, I remember having to devise my own system for report-card conferences. That time could’ve been better spent building relationships with parents. We need more standardized ways of operating schools and teaching students how to write and learn fractions. Far too often we leave these decisions to individual districts, principals, and teachers because of the false dichotomy that education is either an art or science.
Embrace technology. It’s no secret that modern airplanes use a lot of automation. From weather radar, traffic collision avoidance systems, ground proximity warning systems, and auto-
trim systems, computers have enabled pilots to increase their “situational awareness” by freeing up their attention. We can embrace similar technology in education — utilizing some of the computer-adaptive instructional programs to give teachers real-time feedback about what students need and allowing them to “course-correct.”
More time for teachers. Most commercial flights have two pilots — that’s two brains to read and analyze the flight data and make adjustments. Most US classrooms have just one teacher to analyze the data. In the short-term, it’s unrealistic to double our teaching force, but we can provide teachers more time to analyze data and lesson plan accordingly (they do it in Iceland!).
Share data. Airlines share a lot of data about safety. The jet engines strapped to the wings of most commercial aircraft produce nearly a terabyte of data during a flight. This and other data gets pooled and analyzed by the airline industry, helping them more adeptly identify early warning indicators and prevent mechanical issues. There are around 14,000 school districts in the country, and nearly all have proprietary data that they use to launch new initiatives each year to improve instruction. Instead of launching isolated initiatives, districts should be launching collective ventures to improve instruction. That might start with pooling their data to better understand trends and prevent students from failing. State governments and even private foundations can incentivize districts to do this through policy adjustments and financial rewards.
Embrace unions. The airline industry is heavily unionized. At 3 of the 4 major carriers (Southwest, American, and United), between 80-85% of the workforce are unionized. Flight attendants, pilots, and mechanics — all participate in collective bargaining. And those bargaining units don’t just advocate for better pay, they also negotiate for safer working conditions. We love to pillory teacher unions for our stagnant achievement — and while we do need unions to modernize — they’re an ally, not an obstacle.
More coordination. Dozens of workers are responsible for getting flights to depart safely: mechanics, gate agents, meteorologists, air traffic controllers, baggage handlers, pilots, flight attendants, and others. Too often districts, especially large ones, work in silos, failing to support principals and teachers in getting new initiatives off the ground (pun intended). As Professor Honig argues in that previously-cited paper, central offices might be due for a redesign to better support teaching and learning.
On Wednesday morning, my son and I are jumping on a flight to Seattle. I’m still an anxious flier, but I’m more assured knowing how hard airlines work to keep us safe. Now if they could do something about all the fees…
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.