Getting Education Right

Thomas Friedman’s editorial Teaching for America is but another article highlighting the troubled state of affairs of the educational system in the America.  Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education) reports “one-quarter of U.S. high school students drop out or fail to graduate on time. Almost one million students leave our schools for the streets each year.”  Clearly these are disturbing outcomes of the U.S. educational system, particularly when considered that they are common cause outcome patterns, not assignable cause patterns.

Defining the Problem

More specifically the tactics offered—by Duncan and other like-minded people—to solve the problem point to a misunderstanding of the problem itself. The problem has yet to be properly defined.  In other words, these outcomes signal a need for a change of the system, not a change in the system. Yet all that has been offered are changes in the system—pointing fingers at the teachers (i.e. the workers) and not the system itself.  Such a mistake of problem definition will at best deliver an exact solution to the wrong problem. Unfortunately it seems Duncan doesn’t quite understand: a) the problem and b) the level of learning and change that is required to solve it.

However, Duncan is correct in concluding “incremental change isn’t going to get us where we need to go. We’ve got to be more ambitious.  We’ve got to be disruptive.  You can’t keep doing the same stuff and expect different results.”  The change needed is not continuous improvement or a focus on one influencing factor but rather a re-thinking and re-design of the system itself.

The government’s Race to the Top initiative is misguided.  This draws from what the business world has done and continues to do, but with little to no success.  Those in business management generally don’t know how to change; this is why most transformational change initiatives in business organizations fail.  Yet Duncan seemingly looks to the world of business management for clues on what to do.

Just as the management of business organizations often point to the worker, Duncan is pointing to teachers as the cause and thus solution to the problem.  Yes we have to elevate our view of the teaching profession because this will represent and reflect the importance of learning that our culture needs to embrace.  However paying teachers more or incentivizing them—as Duncan advances—will not provide an improved learning experience no more than paying people in business more will lead to improved quality of products and services.

A Search for Examples

As Friedman points out, “if we look to the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (i.e. critical thinking and problem solving, the ability to communicate effectively, and the ability to collaborate)—like Finland and Denmark—one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes.”  However we must interpret this observation in context, not in isolation.  We can’t look at the system of education in another country and cherry pick practices—particularly if they fit what we have pre-determined the solution to our problem.  This will only take us further down a rat hole.

We must understand that the very culture of a society has an impact on the performance of the system of education within that society.  Culture plays a significant role for it represents what we value and believe about our self.  Just as the management of a business organization ignores the significance of culture on its capability, those in authority over the educational system are seemingly doing the same.

We can’t wish for one thing while in practice valuing another thing. What does the American culture say about what (in practice) we believe about our selves, about what we value?  Results, dualistic thinking, individualism and competition, to name a few!  For example we value results so much that we even foolishly believe that if we focus on results (e.g. setting goals and making people accountable by doing more testing—recalling no child left behind) then things will improve.  What we fail to understand and value is process.

System of Causes

Yes teachers change student’s lives, but so too does everyone else they come in contact with.  Parents have an influence, the curriculum we employ to educate—not train—teachers has an influence, the societal culture has an influence, the local community has an influence, the school administrators have an influence, the measures of effectiveness we use influences…etc.  Yes we could go on, as the list is long.

As Duncan correctly says, “we have to get this right.”  Therefore the first ones that must get it right are those—including Duncan—who have authority over and responsibility for the educational system. As Deming so often chided his audience, the problem is not the worker, the problem is the system; and the responsibility for the system is management!

That responsibility begins with understanding the problem from a systems perspective.  It also requires the guidance of profound knowledge, which it seems is not present within the Department of Education.

Those in authority must understand that the system currently is perfectly designed to deliver what it is delivering—otherwise we wouldn’t be consistently getting what we are getting. Therefore they must learn to view it as a system, as well as a system within a system, and then must critically think about the system.  In so doing they will challenge the aim-in-practice and also bring to conscious awareness the (often tacit) governing values and beliefs upon which the system-in-practice is based. We must challenge our own thinking to ensure that at base the system aligns with the very nature of humankind.

If people don’t come through the education system with a greater love for learning than when they entered—and as young children they naturally enter with a thirst for it—then the system will have failed all of us.

7 thoughts on “Getting Education Right

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