Dr. Wood, Thanks for your continuing efforts to improve American education. I am responding to your invitation to readers of February’s issue of the Forum For Education and Democracy newsletter to analyze a first draft of an article written by Carl Glickman: “Closing the Participation Gap: A Thought Piece.”

To introduce myself, you will remember me from 1999 when, through the initiative of the West Carrollton Teachers Association, you made a public address in West Carrollton about ideas in your book, Schools That Work. I met you at the South Dayton Airport and took you to the meeting. I later visited, along with two other teachers, the school where you were principal, Federal Hocking High School, and interviewed you for a well received and extensive article that was printed in our teachers’ association newsletter, WCEA News.

Mr. Glickman’s article prefaces the development of five points by saying that their purpose is to show, “how to educate students successfully for valued and valuable citizenship.”

Mr. Glickman’s points:

  1. Education should build upon student interest.
  2. Schools and school programming should reflect the fact that students need to examine, challenge and improve upon conventional assumptions.
  3. Education should enable students the capacity and choice to work and participate in communities different from the community of one’s birth.
  4. Schools should be intellectually challenging places and involve students, faculty, parents and community members in significant decision making.
  5. Schools need to use a pedagogy of democracy throughout classrooms.

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 most famous demonstration at these seminars was called the “red bead experiment,” which consisted of a large box of small balls, mostly white but maybe one-third red. He had a special paddle that would scoop ten or so of these balls up at once. Deming would call volunteers from the crowd, corporate executives, and would proceed to let each volunteer reach in the box and choose, without looking, a paddle full of balls. Red balls were considered errors or defects. The executive who produced few or no defects was highly praised, while the executive with many defects was sternly warned. Deming had a large chalk board where he kept track. When the same executives had a second chance, since it was all random, the results changed. The executive that previously had been praised, now was warned with something like, “After that last good performance report, you must have started goofing off.” Deming had a good comedic sense.

Deming’s point, that he belabored with his red beads, 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.

Glickman writes, “Schools should avoid all students learning the same material at the same time, students should not be sitting and listening passively, and students should not be categorized, labeled, and placed in fixed ability groups and tracks.” But what Glickman says schools should avoid, is exactly what many schools every day strive to accomplish. Wow. Quiet students listening passively. Most middle school and high school principals would think that great. And the idea that students should not be graded and categorized or tracked is a notion that absolutely contradicts the operational reality evidenced every day in our bureaucratically organized school systems.

To implement Mr. Glickman’s five points, it seems to me, would require radically changing school structure as it presently exists. Tinkering with the system, by adding a program here, formulating new school policies there, can only result in marginal improvements. Deming’s assertion that quality overwhelmingly is determined by organizational structure is an idea, based upon my own experience, that rings true to me.

Mr. Glickman’s timid examples of improved instruction within the present system — geometry teachers having students build models, science teachers monitoring the local environment — are a big weakness in his presentation. He implies that through individual teacher effort schools can be transformed — if only everyone would try a little harder. But, anyone who has taught in a typically organized public school knows that the actions of a teacher in the school are sorely constrained by time, by curriculum, by contract, by ingrained past practices. A geometry teacher who used teaching time in activities designed to engage student interest would be severely criticized by his administration and by the parents of his students if, because of his efforts, his students “covered” only a fraction of the standard assigned geometry curriculum.

A central Deming idea is that a system must be focused on accomplishing a purpose. Right now school purpose is defined by academic tests. Mr. Glickman’s vision of school purpose transcends what is measured on academic tests and centers on, “how to educate students successfully for valued and valuable citizenship.” Sounds good, but if this phrase is to have a chance to impact school reform, it must be explained.

It seems to me that educational leaders should be spending a lot of effort in clarifying what it means to be educated and what it means to educate. The public needs to be shown a vision of authentic education, a vision of school purpose that transcends the purpose pursued by the present system. Authentic education is centered on the development of the individual. It is not indoctrination; it is not focused on creating worker capacity to serve the economy of the state. Authentic education is abhorrent to totalitarian governments.

The hope for our nation is that a vitalized system of public education can provide authentic education to its citizens. “To educate” certainly goes well beyond credentialling, well beyond meeting state standards, well beyond what we attempt to accomplish via state standards and state tests. To become educated is what wise parents want for their own selves and what they want for their own children. And, as John Dewey said, it should be what communities should seek to provide for all children in their community.

To proclaim a goal such as “Education should build upon student interest” is not helpful if such a goal does not answer the key question, “By what method?” Tinkering within the present system will not work. Mr. Glickman’s article makes me conclude that he fails to appreciate the intransigent nature of the present system.

My own conclusion is that the present system needs radical reform and that it is the task of educational leadership to envision a reformed system. Key questions: How should the purpose of schools be defined? What would a school look like that could accomplish that purpose? How would such a school be organized? How would it allocate resources. What theories of organization, motivation, learning should guide such a school? By what criteria should such a school be evaluated? What should the role of a teacher be in such a school? How can the vision of reformed schools and reformed school systems be brought to reality?

Previous posts that discuss improving public education: A Great Question: How Can We Tell If a School Is Excellent? and
Strickland Should Use Charter Schools To Help Fulfill His Promise: “Reform and Renew the System of Education Itself

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