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The Change We Need In Education Is Radical Transformation Of The Present System

Harvard economics professor, Edward Glaeser, writing in The Boston Globe, says that the key to achieving Obama’s education goal — “provide every child a world-class education” — is to drastically improve teacher quality. Glaeser says it’s simple: if we want better schools, we must find better teachers.

I disagree with Glaeser’s prescription. Yes, it would be good to improve teacher quality, but, putting more qualified teachers in the present system would have little impact. The present system would eat them up, just as it does enthusiastic and highly qualified new teachers every year.  The system itself is what must be changed.

I agree with Glaeser – “Improving our schools may be the most important way that President-elect Obama can leave America stronger than he found it. He must avoid any small plans. America doesn’t need an $18 billion Band-Aid. The country needs a massive education overhaul” — but I disagree with Glaeser’s solution. Improving teacher quality is simply not the key issue.

Pouring huge amounts of money into improving teacher preparation would be enthusiastically welcomed by the educational community. Obama must resist this popular and easy remedy.  Real change means changing the system.  This change will be difficult, real transformation will not be popular with those embedded in the present system.

I wrote, In Education, Let’s Stop Trying To Improve a Horse and Buggy System:  “The buggy empire sees all questions of improvement in terms of improving the horse and buggy system and, funded year after year by the government, the buggy empire has little motivation to make upsetting change. Creating a new design for our system of education is an unwelcome notion to the many individuals whose income and professional life is anchored in the current paradigm.”

Public education needs transformation that goes far beyond simply “improving our schools,” or improving the quality of teachers. We need a profound change that:

  1. Redefines the purpose of public education.
  2. Radically redesigns the present system.
  3. Transfers resources from the present system to the new system.

What is needed is a clear vision of a transformed system, one that will work to create a consensus for fundamental change, and a clear plan that will show how, over time, this transformation can proceed.   Presidential leadership could play a vital role in formulating and articulating such a vision, and in showing a safe path by which radical transformation can be accomplished.  Obama’s desire for change will require a lot more hard work and a lot more in-depth thinking than what Glaeser suggests.

We must stop simply replicated the present system. Improving teacher quality sounds attractive, but, at best, it will simply beef up the present system. Improving teacher quality is simply not sufficient. What is needed is transformation.

I’m a believer W. Edwards Deming’s insight that it is the system that determines quality — not the individuals in the system. What needs to happen is a radical rethinking of our whole educational design. Students, parents and teachers are easy targets to blame for poor quality results of the present system. But it is the system itself that is primarily at fault.

Deming is the most notable guru of Total Quality Management discipline. I wrote here: “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.”

What most school reforms emphasize is strategies for tinkering with the 15% of quality issues, and this tinkering, usually expensive, always results in disappointment. If Glaeser’s suggestion was accomplished and teacher quality drastically improved, according to Deming, this change would have less than a 15% impact on the quality of outcomes.

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 needs.

There are interesting comments that react to Glaeser’s Globe article. One person commented, “The problem first and foremost is lousy students. Lousy students come from lousy broken families. Throwing more money and better teachers at the problem does not solve the problem. And education degrees? Please pass
the crayons.”

Another wrote: “The most important factor in a student’s success is the value placed on education by the parents. When you talk to parents of children in nonpublic schools, they are satisfied with the teachers efforts and their students progress. Does this mean that these schools are getting the most able teachers? I think not.”


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4 comments to The Change We Need In Education Is Radical Transformation Of The Present System

  • lurker

    You missed the boat on this one Mike. TQM and statistics mean nothing in relation to bettering our education. You have essentially missed the forest for the trees.

    “The most important factor in a student’s success is the value placed on education by the parents.” This is the answer. The only difference between the teachers in the suburbs and the teachers in the inner city, the teachers in the inner city are flying alone. Teachers in the suburbs can count on parents to assist the student at night, can count on the parents to provide a hot meal, can count on the parents will be invested in the education of the student.

    Until the parents in the inner cities and in Appalachia rural America have the same ability to take interest in their child’s education, buildings and cash won’t change the outcomes. When parents are able to to do that we will succeed in educating students everywhere in the way we are able to in the affluent suburbs.

  • Mike Bock

    Lurker, the central truth that I get from TQM is the idea that the quality of output of any system is determined by the system’s overall organizational structure. Deming said that 85% of quality is determined by organizational structure and only 15% is determined by all other factors combined. The central concept of TQM is often lost in a forest of graphs, charts, and statistics and many organizations who claim to be using TQM are far from adapting its core philosophy, since its core philosophy calls for adopting radical change.

    East Germany, under communist rule, represented one type of system organizational structure and the quality of life East Germany provided for its citizens was vastly inferior to the quality of life provided by the capitalist system in West Germany. Both countries were originally made up of roughly the same citizenry, with similar educational backgrounds and work history. East Germany made a mess and West Germany prospered.

    When we look at the mess we find in education, the question we need to be asking is the same question communist East Germany should have asked itself: What is wrong with the organizational structure of this system? It’s a waste of time to blame teachers, students, parents, or society in general for the mess of our educational system — because the impact of teachers, students, etc., is minimal, compared to the impact of the overall organizational structure.

    What is not acknowledged is that our highest rated schools are doing a very poor job. High rated schools are rescued by parents and communities who prop them up. High rated schools take credit for success when they have no right to take credit. Our highest rated schools are also in desperate need of reorganization in order to bring students to the new levels of accomplishment and creativity our society very much needs.

  • Stan Hirtle

    You might notice that the high school football championships are coming up. They are down to the last 8 or so teams in each level of school. These are basically the same names you see every year at this level of the high school football tournament. Mostly these are programs that produce high level football teams by producing high quality players. There is a certain amount of self selection in this in that parents who want their kids to play this level of football are likely to move to the area served by one of these schools. But it is likely that potential talent in football is more even distributed throughout the state than these results would lead us to expect. There are similar schools that have developed successful programs in other areas, jazz bands, science fairs, mock trial teams.

    This suggests that there is something to Bock’s ideas. At the same time, the commenters are also on to something. Schools are a community of managers, teachers, students, parents and the surrounding community. At all of these levels, motivations and skills may be different. If we decide we can no longer afford the bad results we are getting out of schools where cultures of poverty that don’t value schools, and cultures that don’t prepare kids for school or reward them for school, then we obviously have to supply more of what is missing and a culture that is missing.

    Bock believes that even the schools of the affluent are not doing what schools should be doing in the higher scheme of things. This may be true but it is a hard sell when people are mostly focused on the need for future workers to fuel an economy and to a lesser extent future citizens for a liveable society. What we are too often getting is a school to prison pipeline, and a destructive force in our social fabric. I am never sure where Bock wants to go with his change of the system, and if we are presently East Germany what is West Germany, or whatever utopian version of Germany we should be.

  • Mike Bock

    Stan, your question has me chuckling to myself. You ask: If we are presently East Germany what is West Germany, or whatever utopian version of Germany we should be?

    Every analogy breaks down, I guess.

    Yes, even Centerville is East Germany in my analogy. Under the system of soviet style communism, there were always pockets of privilege — people who had figured out how to use the system for their personal advantage, how to perpetuate privilege for their families. The Soviets built whole communities where the upper crust of their system were coddled. So, to improve my analogy, I guess I am saying, in terms of of system of public education, we are all in East Germany — a failing and very flawed system — and Centerville is one pocket of privilege in the total system.

    The problem is, there is no West Germany — a tangible, real system — that, by comparison, inspires even those who enjoy privilege in the present system to seek something more, something that transcends the present system. It’s difficult to point to school systems worthy of emulation when you are told repeatedly that you are among the ten best school systems in the state.

    But imagine that there were a public school system that, in fact, had abandoned the usual bureaucratic, hierarchical, communist system of public schooling and instead had structured a system of public schooling based on free market principles. Such a system, I believe, would produce a level of quality and accomplishment so superior — and at lower cost — that all the communities with the East German structured schools of today, even those top dog schools like Centerville, would seek similar transformation.

    What is missing is a vision of what such a transformed system might look like, and what a process of transformation might look like. And what is missing is a vitalized democracy that could embace and could empower such transformation.

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