Just got back from a great trip that included a nice visit with my friends Terrell and Sheila Shaw in Rome Georgia. As is the usual case, Terry and I got into a late night discussion about education, and at some point in the discussion, as I was enjoying hearing myself expound on school reformation, Terry helpfully demanded, “I want to see specifics.” I found myself saying, “You can’t build the third floor of a building first, you’ve got to first establish a solid foundation and you must first build floors one and two before you get the opportunity to build the third floor.”
I’ve thought more about this third floor analogy. Of course, one shouldn’t start any building project without a good plan, and a good plan would envisage not just the foundation, and floors one and two, but the entire building. But building a school is quite different from constructing a school building.
It is interesting that most all schools are based on the same design. A high school in Seattle is most likely pretty much identical to a high school in Piqua — not the setting, not the building, but the school program and school operation itself. The idea that public education needs reform, needs a new design, is an idea often proclaimed — particularly after the “Nation at Risk” condemnation of public schools that was published in 1983, twenty-five years ago — but little about essential school design has changed.
It is an interesting thought experiment to imagine yourself the architect of a school — not a physical school building, but a school itself. The processes needed for creating the plans to construct a physical building make a useful analogy to the processes needed for creating the plans to construct an effective public school program. An architect employed to design a physical building would have a lot of questions that would need to be answered before he or she could even start a design. A central question any architect would need to have answered certainly would be one of purpose: “What is the purpose of this building you want me to design?” A building designed for use as a hospital is quite different from a building designed as a collection of condominiums. An architect of a physical building applies principles of science and art to guide his creation of a plan that will accomplish the building’s purpose.
Foundational to school design, as to a physical building design, must be an understanding of purpose as well as insight and knowledge of valid principles of science and art that can reliably guide the creation of a plan that will accomplish that purpose. Right now, ostensibly, schools primarily are designed for the purpose of producing test scores and awarding credentials and the statistics are appalling at how dismally schools accomplish even these limited purposes. It is small wonder. The principles that determine current school designs are principles largely proven false. The profound understanding of motivation, organizational structure, teaching and learning available to us in 2008 is generally never applied to public education as we know it. In its efficacy in applying available educational knowledge and insight, in public education the current year might as well be 1908, not 2008.
The last couple of years I’ve been writing a web log of my thoughts and many of these thoughts have centered on schools and education, on clarifying in my own mind what purposes and principles should guide the design of public education. Terry is right that this should all lead to something more specific, and my goal this year is to produce a specific proposal for the consideration of local school boards.
One benefit of writing a web log is that, over time, because of the discipline of writing, one’s thought should move forward. This morning I decided to review what thoughts I have recorded over the last two years or so dealing with education, as a means of evaluating how to proceed from here.
In “Motivation, Not Curriculum:The Key to School Reform,” I write, about Minnesota’s Governor Pawlenty’s strategy for reforming schools and note that, “The guiding philosophy of school management, in fact, is that quality comes via hierarchical processes and bureaucratic control. And, though this approach, again and again, has shown to be a disaster, the solution to low quality that is offered, repeatedly, is that more hierarchical processes and more bureaucratic control is the answer….
“The problem is not that schools lack adequate curriculum, technology or power over students. The problem is that even top students are working far below their potential. Minnesota, like all states, already has a big system of academic rewards, requirements, and punishments that already fail to motivate the slacking high school students that Pawlenty cites. It seems unlikely that Pawlenty’s more-of-the-same reforms will result in much increase in motivation — within failing students or within top students — and motivation is the key to accomplishment.”
In “Education For the Future Demands Authentic Teaching,” I write, “The whole march of the No Child Left Behind Law and the Back to Basics movement downplays and diminishes the role of teacher, and increasingly takes away a human quality in teaching…. Our current prescriptive schools tend to define teachers as bureaucrats whose job is to oversee and dispense a government program. But the natural role of a teacher, one established through the millennia, is a role that is quite different, one that results in a model of developed humanity, one that reveals an individual who is constantly growing into the capacity of who he or she is as an individual, one that inspires and that is worthy of emulation. … The education of the future, when it shuffles off its unscientific core, I believe, will begin to anchor the teacher role and the teacher /student dynamic within an understanding of education that is based on a deep understanding of human nature. Education in a more enlightened future will have as its goal the development of human potential and will understand and promote authentic teaching as a key aspect of that development.”
In a post about the new Philadelphia School of the Future,“The School of the Present Is Failing And Technology Is Not The Solution,” I write: “An American school of the future, it seems to me, would be one that anticipates a future where American ideals are realized: liberty, justice, personal freedom, democratic participation, civic awareness. The advocates of the Philadelphia school seem to say that school is all about preparing students for employment, all about giving students the skills and experience needed to benefit from the advantages of this technological age. But that is not enough. North Korean leaders want this from their schools as well…. Job training has its place but, by itself, job training does not advance the ideals at the foundation of our society. When we see how the foundations of our democracy are crumbling, it is fair to hold our schools accountable, and the fact whether students are passing tests or not is beside the point.
“Our high schools in general — and this new Philadelphia high school seems no exception — are hierarchical, authoritarian, coercive and bureaucratic. It is the school itself, through its practices and ethos, that teaches, and, structured as they are, this ‘hidden curriculum’ of our high schools teaches values inimical to the ideals at the foundation of our society. The operation of our high schools, in general, would not contradict the operating principles of North Korean society. Our schools at present fail to anticipate or prepare a future, through their operations and practice, that honors American ideals and values. And this failure, though seldom acknowledged, is the central failure of American schools — not the failure indicated on tests….There is a huge need for American public education to be redesigned; there is a huge need for a school design that would implement, through its practices and ethos, American ideals, a school that would anticipate a flowering of democracy. Such a school would not be designed based on technology, but would be designed based on sound theory and profound insight into school purpose, human purpose, and human potential.”
In “Schools That Would Make Joseph Stalin Happy,” I write, “We currently have a school structure appropriate for North Korea or the old Soviet Union, not for a democracy….Who would have thought that in a democracy, such as ours, schools would be known for their authoritative central control, unquestioned obedience, and rigid, punitive, and narrowly defined accountability. It is strange that a democracy would allow its schools to focus on purposes appropriate for totalitarian states: training workers for jobs, acclimating future citizens to passivity, convincing future citizens to accept the power structures of their society and convincing future citizens to accept the values of those in power. Schools, when asked to identify their best students, do not highlight strongly developed individuals with a passion for justice, democracy, freedom, and independent thinking. The best students, according to schools, are those who have most fully acknowledged the authority of the system, have met the demands of the system, and who have approbation of the system. Stalin would have been happy with such school criteria.”
In that same post I ask, “How should we go about designing a school that emphasizes the total education of children, and that prepares children to be effective citizens in a democracy? What is our vision of such a school?” I suggest this thought experiment:
“Suppose you live in a time of kings and your king has a 12 year old child and the king assigns you the responsibility for the 12 year old’s total education. How would you define “total education”? What are the theories and principles that would guide your actions? How would you proceed with seeing to the education of the 12 year old?
“Now that sets up the premise. The key question to answer is: How would you engage this 12 year old child in the persistent effort and concentration needed for his or her individual development? This is the same key question, of course, that is appropriate for every 12 year old, regardless of financial or social status. Would you reward and punish with grades and praise? Would you insist that he or she study math at 10:00 AM every day? I don’t think so. This thought experiment forces a realization that much of what we consider as appropriate schooling for the masses should be discarded, and a way should be found to meaningfully personalize the education of every child.”
In “The Education Of John Adams,” I write, “David McCullough’s book, John Adams, tells about the education of John Adams. John Adams graduated from Harvard, received a law degree, acquired academic recognition, read Cicero and the classics, was immersed in lifelong learning. What distinguished John Adams most, however, was not his learning accomplishments; what distinguished John Adams was his overall character, his: integrity, commitment to truth and justice, dedication to service, commitment to personal excellence, inner self-reflection, personal courage, etc. The education of John Adams involved the mastery of academics, but, the more important part of his education was the development and strengthening of his character.
“The development and strengthening of character is a vital part of what it means to become a fully realized person. Character development is an important part of an effective education. But since character development is not something that evaluators of a school measure, character development is now effectively ignored by schools. Academic growth is what is emphasized. Evaluators periodically want to know: Has there been sufficient growth in the children’s reading, writing and math progress? Has there been growth in the children’s test taking skills? The merit of a school is determined according to the findings of such evaluations. The importance of character development may be mentioned in school publications as a vague goal, but, practically, because character development is not part of school evaluations, schools ignore character development.
“If a real goal of schools was to promote character growth in children, then schools would be evaluated not just on academic growth, but on character growth as well. Evaluators periodically would want to know the answers to such questions as: Has there been any positive growth in the children’s integrity, commitment to truth? Any growth in the children’s inclination to question authority, to think independently? Any growth in the children’s commitment to personal excellence or inner self-reflection? And schools would be evaluated and ranked according to the evaluators’ findings of such questions….
“The most important deprivation of students is not their lack of a foundation in math or writing skills. The deprivation of children that is most important is their lack of good role models, their lack of the support of a vital community, their lack of practical and real experiences. It is these deprivations that most hinder the development of character in children. How schools can effectively compensate for these more important deprivations of children is a key question….
“It seems to me that the question of how student character can be developed and strengthened in schools requires an answer, in fact, that goes beyond what is imaginable for schools as they are currently structured. But whatever the answer is, the first step is to acknowledge the importance of character development and to make a commitment to finding ways to make character development a central concern of schools. John Adams’ biography reveals principles of character development. Principles endure. The challenge is to use principles to guide the design of new educational structures, new schools — but that is a challenge for another day.
“It is an interesting question: what would educational structures/schools look like that would implement and use the principles that were the basis for the education of John Adams?”
In “A Great Question: How Can We Tell If a School Is Excellent?”, I write, “Our society seems to suffer from a lack of imagination as to what really constitutes ‘excellence,’ in schools for a democratic society. This dearth of imagination about schools is striking because we seem to have plenty of ideas as to what makes an automobile excellent, or a sandwich, or a gym shoe excellent — because our imaginations are constantly being challenged by persistent and clever marketers. As a society, incredibly, there seems little discussion as to what makes for excellence in schools, and, incredibly, in this vacuum of thought, there seems a consensus that school excellence can be ascertained via test scores….
“Common sense is offended by the notion that an excellent school would be one that operates a mediocre, boring program, with most of its students and teachers simply going through the motions — disengaged from meaningful learning and, by all evidence, intellectually dead. But one problem with relying on test scores to evaluate a school is that mediocre schools, in fact, commonly are proclaimed ‘excellent.’ The fact is, a school can have high scores in spite of its program, rather than because of its program….
“What is needed is a whole new way of evaluating schools. There needs to be a lot of thought centered on this question: What is the criteria of school excellence that would help direct schools toward authentic improvement? What are useful benchmarks by which taxpayers can gauge the excellence of schools?”
In, “Let’s Frame the Question of ‘Achievement Gap’ to Include All Schools and All Students,” I write, “The issue of improving public education should be framed in such a way that it speaks to every parent, particularly those parents whose children or grandchildren are already high achievers, according to school standards. The ‘gap’ that really interests parents is the gap between the actual education that their child is receiving and the optimal education that would most help their child. What might constitute optimal education is a good question….
“Barack Obama has said that our schools should ‘provide an education for children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.’ This view of school purpose would be a great way to frame a question about public education: How do we close the gap between a child’s potential and the child’s accomplishments? … Obama’s comment would frame a question that would challenge the current aims and practices of schools and would stimulate useful insight from those parents whose children, though high achievers, are bored and disengaged from their own school experience.
In “To Transform Our System Of Education, We Must Redefine The Aim Of The System,” I write, “Barack Obama has said that our schools should “provide an education for children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.” To make this goal the actual purpose of our educational system would mean a radical transformation of the system, because this goal is radically different from the goal that our educational system currently pursues.
“One point of confusion is that the goal that Obama states for schools sounds a lot like the goal that schools already proclaim. It hardly sounds like a new idea. When schools endlessly drill students on discrete curriculum, treating students as empty vessels to be filled, they claim they are working to help students fulfill their potential. Most everything that a school does is justified as working to accomplish the goal of helping students reach their potential, so Obama’s goal doesn’t sound like much of a breakthrough idea.
“I’ve made comparisons between how our current educational system works and how the East German car manufacturing system, that produced the poor quality Trabant, worked. The ostensible goal of the Trabant system was to produce quality and the ostensible aim of our educational system also is to produce quality. In both systems, the biggest impediment to producing quality is the fact that producing quality was never the actual aim of either system. The actual aim in both cases, and this sounds harsh, was to protect and advance people in the system.
“The people in the educational system are not evil, almost all are dedicated to helping children, but the truth is, the educational system is largely a monopoly with little accountability. Over the years, the actual aim of the system — reflected in its contracts, budgets and established practices — was shaped to advance and protect the interests of its members. Of course, the educational system would claim that the aim of the system is to provide quality education, and, in fact, it is true that many individuals in the system work fervently to attempt to fulfill this aim. But, it is clear, from analyzing its organizational structure, the system is simply not organized to accomplish the purpose of educating children, it is organized to benefit its members. Similarly, the health care system is filled with dedicated professionals, but the actual aim of the health care system, itself, is not to make the nation healthy. Its actual aim is to advance and protect the interests of its members. And similarly, the legal system is filled with dedicated professionals ….”
In “Strickland Should Use Charter Schools To Help Fulfill His Promise: ‘Reform and Renew the System of Education Itself’,” I write, “Governor Ted Strickland, in his inaugural speech last January, made a big commitment to reform Ohio education. He said, ‘The goal of making our schools and colleges work cannot be achieved with simply more and more money. We must be willing and brave enough to take bold steps to reform and renew the system of education itself.’ Since the time of that speech, Ohioans have been waiting to see what steps toward education reform that Strickland would advance.
Strickland’s promise to reform ‘the system of education itself,’ suggests that Strickland is thinking of applying ‘total quality’ reforms to Ohio’s schools. The Total Quality Management (TQM) movement, much written about, particularly impacted the American auto industry; TQM was a response to the quality challenge of Japanese and German manufacturers and was inspired by quality gurus such as W. Edwards Deming.
TQM theory could be applied to educational systems and it would be encouraging to know that Strickland, in fact, is being influenced by TQM thinking. TQM sees quality as flowing from ‘the system itself,’ and emphasizes that the key to quality is organizational structure and overall management. Deming made the astounding claim that 85% of quality issues are determined by organizational structure, and that only 15% of quality issues are determined by personnel qualifications, work rules, etc.
TQM would give Strickland a comprehensive strategy by which to attack the issue of how to reform schools. What most school reforms emphasize is strategies for tinkering with the 15% of quality issues, and this tinkering, usually expensive, always results in disappointment. TQM demands that management deal with the crucial 85% — the system’s organizational structure. The reform of organizational structure is the reform that public education in Ohio needs, and, it sounds like Strickland wants to move this type of major reform toward reality.
The power of overall organizational structure to influence quality is illustrated by the poor quality produced by communist factories. While communist East Germany, prior to 1989, was producing the lemon car called the Trabant, capitalist West Germany was producing quality autos like the Volkswagen and the Mercedes. The Trabant factory was organized inefficiently and was kept going by government subsidies. Tinkering with the Trabant production — through imposing ever more government inspections or through new rewards and punishments for its workers or through new management rules — failed to change the Trabant into a quality product. Only a vast change in organizational structure could have had the quality impact that was needed and the political will to make such massive change never materialized.
“When Strickland, or any objective observer, looks over Ohio’s education system, the Trabant comes more to mind than the Volkswagen, and certainly more so than the Mercedes. …Ohio citizens have a lemon in their education system, a lemon that is protected and advocated by powerful politicians and by a faulty evaluation system that unjustifiably puffs districts up with the inflated rating of “excellent.” The only way to transform this lemon is through fundamental system change.”
In “Barack Obama’s ‘Go To The Moon’ Challenge For Our Time Should Be: Transform Public Education,” I write, “Barack Obama proclaimed what could be a defining goal for public education, in his speech the other day, when he said that U.S. citizens should be guaranteed “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.” This phrase might just be rhetoric, but, if not, it indicates a truly stunning goal. A system of public education centered on understanding and fulfilling individual potential would require a revolution in our system of public education. …
“Our collective imaginations have been dulled as to what, at best, we could hope that public education might ever accomplish. The issue of public education has been framed in terms of curriculum, test scores, college admissions, technical training. By common agreement, and through the efficacy of relentless propaganda, we think we know what a first class education amounts to. But our common agreement is wrong.
“Compared to education, say, in 2060, our current view of education will seem primitive and limiting. Certainly, if human progress continues, future generations will react with both horror and amusement to today’s understanding of what constitutes quality education. …Obama’s insight that education should center on understanding and developing individual human potential is an insight that anticipates the future.
In “Public Schools Need Radical Reform, Educational Leaders Must Answer the Question: BY WHAT METHOD?”, I write, “Stating goals in education has been proven to be much easier than actually accomplishing goals. We all remember George H. Bush’s program, developed with the nation’s governors, called ‘Goals 2000.’ These goals outlined what public education should seek to accomplish by the year 2000. But, as it turned out, the year 2000 came and went and little progress was made in reaching those goals….
“Setting goals is easy, the question is: how shall standards / goals be accomplished? Mr. Glickman’s first point is a wonderful goal, ‘Education should build upon student interest.’ Haven’t educational thinkers perennially articulated this goal? But, the accomplishment of this goal has been elusive….
“In 1991, I had the opportunity to attend a W. Edwards Deming four day seminar in Miami, Florida. Deming, known as a “quality guru” for his work in transforming Japan industry after WW2 and for his later work with American industry, notably Ford, was well into his nineties when I had the chance to meet him. Deming was somewhat enfeebled but he could still speak with a loud voice to emphasize a point. He particularly liked to roar, ‘By What Method?’
“Deming said goals and quotas mean nothing unless there is a method or plan to bring those goals to reality. He ridiculed Goals 2000. He would read a goal and would say, ‘What a great goal, but, BY WHAT METHOD?’
Deming’s point was that it is the system that determines quality, not people. His statistic was that 85% of quality issues are determined by the organization of the system — and only 15% of quality issues are determined by all other factors combined, including the quality of personnel. Deming’s point is that if you want to accomplish a goal, you better have a system built on sound theory, you better have a well thought organizational structure to accomplish it.
“Certainly, if public education could implement Glickman’s first goal, that ‘education should be built on student interest,’ our schools would be transformed. Our educational system, as it is, however, simply is not structured to empower personalized, individualized education that implementing this goal would require, and simply wishing the system to be so structured will not make it so.”