Gov. Strickland’s Education Plan Disappoints — Fails To Deal With The Central Issue Of System Structure

Governor Strickland’s enthusiasm must have got the best of him when, in his State of the State Speech, he announced a goal to “build Ohio’s education system anew.” Unfortunately, it appears that Strickland’s Education Plan does not really seek to accomplish such a grand goal. The aim of Strickland’s plan is not to make a new system but, rather, to strengthen and add to the present system.

Governor Strickland:  Are his ideas are not big enough?

Governor Strickland: Are his ideas big enough?

Every politician can be forgiven exuberance, but it is disappointing that Strickland’s education plan falls so far short of his rhetoric. You would think that a speech about building a new education system would use the notion of “system” to frame the issues in the speech. But, it appears that Strickland in his speech made no effort to think in systems’ terms or systems’ theory.

Strickland wants the present system to do better. He’s not interested in creating a new system. Strickland evidently thinks that the present bureaucratic, hierarchical, top-down system is basically OK.  When Strickland says the system should be “built anew,” he simply means that the system should have better rules, better workers, more money, more requirements, more bureaucracy, and more accountability.

I just can’t see that a theory that says quality comes from more regulations, more hierarchy, more bureaucracy is defensible. I doubt that Strickland thinks such a theory is defensible either.  His speech ran away from such a notion. Strickland had a good applause line when he derided “tinkering” within the present system. But his plan, from a systems’ view, amounts to “tinkering,” because it fails to address systems’ issues.

Strickland seems to me to be a very sincere person and I believe that he genuinely wants big improvements in education in Ohio. I will grant that if Ohio’s education had better rules, better workers, more money, more bureaucracy, it would probably show some improvements.  But at best these would only bring about marginal improvement and marginal improvement simply is not enough.  By Strickland’s own evaluation, what is needed for Ohio education is transformational improvement.

The only avenue to transformational improvement, I believe, is through transformation of the system. I’ve explained in previous articles that my thinking about systems comes from W. Edwards Deming, known as the quality guru who helped direct much of Japan’s post WW2 industrial recovery. I had a chance to meet Deming when I worked as a helper at one of his famous four day seminars. At the time, Deming was over 90 years old.

What I keep quoting from Deming is his conclusion that 85% of quality is determined by system organization and structure. This conclusion has astounding implications. Governor Strickland’s plan, for example, outlines an expensive and bureaucratic procedure by which teacher quality can be improved. I think he has some good ideas. And, I believe the governor is absolutely correct that teacher quality should be improved. But, suppose that all Ohio teachers were twice as competent as they presently are. What impact on educational outputs or educational quality would such a change make? If you think that such a huge, expensive change would make a big difference, according to Deming, you are wrong.  Suppose even more money was poured into advancing teacher competence and teacher competence was tripled.  Again, according to Deming, the overall impact would be disappointingly small.  According to Deming even big changes, by themselves, at most, have marginal impacts, if the system itself does not change.

The system, as it is, finds ways to defeat and discourage even the most qualified teachers. The present system hugely wastes teacher potential. Of the teacher potential already available in the present system only a small percentage is actually focused productively. Increasing teacher potential in a big way within the system would hardly matter if this potential is also wasted.  Increasing teacher potential would have much less impact on quality than changing the system itself.  As I said, Deming’s conclusion that 85% of quality is determined by system organization has big implications. The bottom line is that the means to significant quality improvement is through change of the system, not through change within the system.

The old Soviet system was doomed to fail, because its system design had many fatal flaws. There were many highly educated, well meaning people in the old Soviet system who worked hard to make the system work. But the system was fatally flawed. Similarly, Ohio’s educational system is fatally flawed.

From what I’ve read, it looks like members of the educational establishment, generally, are lining up to show support for Strickland’s plan. And why shouldn’t they? Strickland is basically saying that the present system is OK, but, that it needs more money, more rules, that the bureaucrats in the system need more authority, etc. If you are part of that system, what’s not to like, particularly, if you’ve wormed your way into the hierarchy or bureaucracy?

I appreciate Strickland’s sincerity and believe that he wants Ohio to create a wonderful education system. I like the fact that it bothers Strickland that Samuel Lewis, who toured Ohio schools on horseback in the 1830s as the first state superintendent, would recognize as familiar today’s “classroom with rows of students lined up to listen to a teacher and record, rather than interact with, the information being provided.”

I like that Strickland said that “Our schools are not assembly lines and our students are not widgets,” that he wants to “foster creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving,” that he want Ohio’s students to experience “real world lessons,” and that he wants students to acquire “global awareness.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. Good thoughts and ideas. But, rhetoric is easy. The question is, can we have a government that has sufficient gumption to create an education plan that would actually work?  It would take the expenditure of a lot of political capital to craft and push such a plan.  Strickland for all his sincerity and good intentions, it seems to me, in his education plan, has taken the easy path and has ducked dealing with the hard issues that are central to meaningful education reform. Since Strickland’s plan shows no provisions to meaningfully restructure the system, it is doomed to disappoint. He should have tried for so much more.

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