Thinking Through Purposes and Principles Needed To Guide the Re-Design of Public Education

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.”

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17 Responses to Thinking Through Purposes and Principles Needed To Guide the Re-Design of Public Education

  1. Original Eric says:

    Mike, Governor Ted Strickland isn’t listening. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Susan Zelman intuitively understood TQM, and the Governor has made it clear that commonsense approach to responsibly fulfilling the duties of State Superintendent is not welcome in Columbus given the recent Democratic majority among statewide officeholders.

    What is welcome is the “balloons, banners and bozos” approach. Perhaps Barack Obama will include it in his education platform.

  2. Stan Hirtle says:

    Mike Bock envisions a society organized around and valuing democratic institutions as the means to and product of individuals of high quality and character. I question whether people in America actual believe in democratic values enough to organize their lives around them. What we seem to really believe in are hierarchy, consumerism, violence and technology, covered over with a culture of respectability. Democracy is characterized by low participation and contests characterized by low quality, highly emotional conflict such as we are seeing over the New Yorker cover cartoon about the Obamas and similar sorts of issues that the “debate” has centered around. It is arguable that the role of money in politics and the ability of officials to draw districts for themselves, and the fact that there is relatively little dissent about them, have created the antithesis of the democratic values Mike Bock espouses. It may be that democracy is a creation of the blip in history known as the enlightenment, which was a product of a limited portion even of its society (Jefferson owned slaves, made babies with them and apparently didn’t believe they would be participating in his democracy any time soon) which has struggled since, advancing and retreating, and at the moment may be in retreat before localized and narrative denying postmodernism, as well as modern social organization. It may be that belief in democracy, like belief in Christianity, is a mile wide and an inch deep.

    Schools thus reflect the society they serve. The education Mike desires exists primarily for elites who will run the hierarchy, while the North Korean-like versions exist for others. The society struggles to adjust for the need for and needs of a “creative class” contraposed with the need for a class of menials. Even the “creative class” lacks access to real power, and although it lives better than the menials it is constantly threatened with downward mobility. Life is characterized by overwhelming but meaningless consumer choices. We also run headlong into globalization, technological change, threats of limited resources and environmental degradation as well as an unprecendented amount of contact and clash between global and local cultures. We thus face a situation of constant change and threat where everything is up for grabs.

    If we want Americans to reform schools to reflect democratic values we will need to establish the American people ‘s commitment to them. Democratic values must be tested and supported in conflict with things we seem to value more, if they are to prevail. Jefferson recognized that each generation may need to renew its commitment and in fact have its own revolution. This commitment of people to democratic values may be more important than the structure into which they are organized, at least in highly personal endeavors like education. Factories may be different, but they are of course hierarchical, as is the corporate model which makes the important decisions in today’s world. This constant recommitment to democratic values must precede the creation of schools designed to reflect and preserve them.

  3. Original Eric says:


    Mike drifts off into educational utopia. There are many things to fix. Some may even be fairly simple. We do need people to feel safe enough to take prudent risk.

    The Kettering Foundation materials promote community dialogue. We can use them here regardless of the politics in Columbus. If enough communities use the Kettering materials, Columbus may be forced to change.


  4. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, you write, “This constant recommitment to democratic values must precede the creation of schools designed to reflect and preserve them.”

    My response is, “Not necessarily.” Parents and communities want quality education for their children. If the purpose of tax money spent on public education programs is the creation of quality education for a community’s children, then, of key importance is defining what quality education really means. Obama has defined a quality education with these words: “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.” This definition has a whole vista of meaning that transcends the purpose that even the highest rated schools attempt to accomplish. Creating and implementing educational programs, schools with such purpose, would necessarily require a radical change in a community’s public education program. The principles needed to plan and implement such a program would be radically different from the principles that are currently being applied to present day programs — even in schools considered “excellent.” You simply can’t structure such an educational program — designed for the purpose of empowering each student to understand and grow into his or her potential — that is totalitarian, hierarchical and bureaucratic. Such a program, designed to inspire and empower the individual, would necessarily breathe, embody and practice democratic principles. The key to educational quality is via the exercise of democratic principles and my thinking is that eventually this desire for quality will be the determining factor in the reformation of schools, and this desire for quality will bring about a new understanding of the power of democracy. Similarly, people who claim to know see in China a gradual movement toward democracy based on a zeal for economic success. Applying principles needed for economic success in China has the potential of bringing democracy eventually to China, and the moving force toward this move to democracy is the lust for money and economic improvement — not a love for or commitment to democracy itself.

    It looks like China may move toward democracy propelled by a vision of how to create new levels of wealth. I am wondering if American communities might move toward schools where democracy is embodied and where students are empowered and prepared to fully participate and create a democratic society, not because of a love or understanding of democracy, but because they are propelled by a vision of quality education and by the economic implications of creating quality educational programs in their community.

    And, you write, “The education Mike desires exists primarily for elites who will run the hierarchy, while the North Korean-like versions exist for others.”

    In Dayton, there are a number of public schools that generally are identified as schools for the elite. But these schools, in many ways, are crummy schools and are far from providing the type of education needed to fulfill Obama’s words. One huge impediment to meaningful school reform is the fact that in communities with the strongest economic and community / citizen base — communities where quality educational programs could be most easily established — are convinced that their schools already are “excellent.” Why fix what is not broken? After all, based on their test scores, Columbus tells them their schools are wonderful — their children are admitted to good colleges, etc. And their local schools spend a lot of public money through the energy of hired professionals creating and promulgating relentless propaganda about their excellence. An honest examination of schools that are rated as “excellent” would be the basis for a public demand in these school communities for school reform.

    Eric, you write, “Governor Ted Strickland isn’t listening.” I hope your evaluation of the governor is wrong, because Ohio very much needs leadership for the reformation of Ohio schools. But what I am impressed by is that a local school board has a lot of authority that school board members simply never choose to apply. Even without leadership at the state level, any local board has the authority to show leadership in their community — if they chose to do so.

    Stan, you remind me that I have been writing these last two years a lot about democracy. In this mode of summary and review, I decided to look up the posts about democracy I have made.

    The Transcendent Challenge Dayton Must Solve In Order To Be Assured Of A Great Future

    Non-Partisan Action Is Needed To Strengthen And Support Our Local Democracy

    The Trend Toward An Ignorant Single-Mindedness Threatens The Future Of Our Democracy Itself

    Grassroots Dayton: “Sowing The Seeds Of Democracy”

    Montgomery County Republicans To Reorganize This Evening; 133 Elected to Central Committee (Out of 548)

    The Problem Behind the Problem: What Does It Take To Make Our Democracy Work As It Should?

    As We Accelerate Towards the Cliff: Can’t Help Thinking We Should Be Frightened About Tomorrow

    How Gerrymandering Defeated An Outstanding Candidate And Sent a Weak Candidate To Columbus

    What It Means To Be An Effective Representative; Why Leadership and Community are Essential

    Victor Harris: Surprised That Local Democratic Party Wanted To Suppress Primary Competition

    For Our Future’s Sake, We Must Transform Our System of Elitism To a System of Democracy

    Our Failing Democracy Should Be A Big Issue — Why Isn’t It?

    How to Make the Big Leap Needed To Become An Effective Alternative Media?

    The Mission of the Democratic Party Should Be to Empower Democracy

    The Big Questions Facing Our Democracy Are Too Important To Allow Political Parties to Decide

    Montgomery County Republicans Take Action That Effectively Suppresses Grassroots Democracy

    The Mission of The Democratic Party Should Be: To Make Our Representative Democracy Effective

    The State of the Grassroots is Deplorable and Our Political Parties Share the Blame

    The Democratic Party Must Advance Democracy — An Educated Public Will Vote Democratic

    The Democratic Party: A Vision of Purpose –Democrats Should Support the Forming Of Democracy Clubs In Local Schools

    Proposed Grassroots Plan For The Montgomery County Democratic Party

    Why Do the Heathen Rage? Why Does My District Always Vote Republican?

  5. Rick says:

    Mike, there is a great deal of truth to what you say. However. never forget what gave impetus to the educational reform movement, centralized, top-down that it is. The problem was the collapse of the American public education system. After those international comparisons came out, people no longer believed their departments of education and the educational blobaucracy which told everyone “hey, we are doing a great job.” The educational establishment lost its credibility.

  6. Stan Hirtle says:

    “In Dayton, there are a number of public schools that generally are identified as schools for the elite.” I assume you mean in metropolitan Dayton. Certainly not the City of Dayton, which is mostly the opposite of a “community with the strongest economic and community / citizen base.” It has a few schools, public and private, that have done better than others, in part by attracting what present and future middle class children are in Dayton, but nothing approaching an elite status. And the other communities that do have a stronger economic and community citizen base have no reason to want to improve Dayton and many reasons not to.

    Many assume that a capitalist economy will lead to democracy in places like China and Iraq. This may be because in the Cold War capitalism and democracy were equated in the public mind. But while a capitalistic system may generate pressure to reduce oppression of at least the more productive people, whether it leads to democracy, at least as America’s founders and other enlightenment people envisioned it, is questionable. It is not clear whether China will become democratic as it becomes more capitalistic. Corporations are not democratic institutions, and they are what dominates America and the West. A capitalist economy does not require that corporations be as powerful as they are, but the chance of undoing them in today’s global economy is slim as they are more powerful than most states.

    Perhaps we are in the process of redefining democracy, from being where the people make the significant decisions in the society, to a system which merely puts some limits on how elites govern, or provides a method to resolve disputes among the elite. In most democracies today, a limited number of choices are put before “the people,” often in ways where the real issues are masked or manipulated. Other choices are not deemed legitimate. This is most obvious to us in Iran, where the Mullahs decide who can be on the ballot, essentially weakening or excluding pro Western reformers of the Islamic Revolution. Islamist parties get the same, often more brutal treatment, in places like Egypt. And of course the “democracy” in Zimbabwe is recognized as a sham even by George Bush. However similar issues exist here, where the requirement of raising huge amounts of money from those who have it makes certain candidates and positions illegitimate. A majority of Americans would support single payer health insurance, the end of the war in Iraq and elimination of the ability of banks and financial institutions to trick and trap their customers with loan and credit card terms. However they have not been able to translate this support into action because of the way our “democracy” operates. Where we have a contest it is often because wealthy interests are divided on a direction for the future, as they were in the race between Clinton and Bush I, and as they appear to be today in the race between McCain and Obama to succeed Bush II. However as the gap between the rich and everyone else clearly widens, the ability of everyone else to influence the political system is highly limited. Democracy requires structures that support it and encourage it, diffusing and frustrating attempts to concentrate power in others. We do not have those institutions. The founders wanted countervailing power but instead we have more collaboration. A particular issue is the news media, which essentially provides the conversation by which the community learns and decides. Today’s media is more corporate and less willing to consider alternatives to corporate approaches. The cutting of newsrooms like the Tribune owner is doing is essentially a form of unilateral disarmament of democratic power. Instead we see a lot of entertainment and generation of more heat than light, particularly on talk radio and cable tv whose hosts seem to be obsessed by their own power over our future leaders and their ability to act stupid with impunity. The variety of cable tv and internet blogs may reduce the monopoly of ideas but also seems to result in a more fractured polity, where like minded people can reinforce beliefs and emotions without having them challenged. This leads to the people being less grounded and more subject to manipulation. Democracy requires a grounded, informed and responsible people able to understand problems and make decisions. It requires institutions that provide that framework. We seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

  7. Original Eric says:

    other communities that do have a stronger economic and community citizen base have no reason to want to improve Dayton and many reasons not to.

    I have never heard such a thing! Is this ideologically motivated speculation?

    It would be extremely difficult for “outsiders” to mediate the teacher-administrator-board-union standoff in Dayton. It’s “indifference” only to the extent that talented individuals who can help have no incentive–prospect for success–commensurate with the effort which would be required.

  8. Stan Hirtle says:

    One of the attractions of suburban communites is that their schools are better than Dayton’s. Look at today’s Dayton Daily News column on the attractions of the Dayton area. One is that “a nice home in one of the state’s best school districts can be had for under $200,000.” This is obviously a suburb. There are several attractive areas in the City of Dayton where similar homes are worth less than half as much. A main reason is the schools and the class and race of the people who go to them. Middle class people want middle class schools and creative class people want creative class schools. If these don’t exist people flee the city in droves.

    The same column talked about how the City of Dayton areas are attractive to young and retired people. The big gap is people with school age children. Many large cities are experiencing revivals of at least portions of their urban cores as commuting becomes more onerous and expensive. Dayton may not have as much employment in its downtown as say Atlanta, but there are some efforts in this direction. A telling comment in the column was that there isn’t much wrong with Dayton that a lot of good paying jobs won’t fix. Howevere race, class and the school systems that determine the future class opportunities are the driving force holding back the City of Dayton.

    Supposing America were to decide it can not tolerate the social and employment costs of the number of undereducated people that urban cores like Dayton are producing, and were to invest say a portion of the present military budget in improving the schools. We would need to make up for the social capital that is lacking in impoverished urban cores with things like smaller class sizes and a better teaching environment, to say nothing of salaries for teachers commensurate with those of other professionals whose work we claim to value, or say those of the mortgage industry professionals who brought us the subprime meltdown. And suppose more people from the suburbs realized that the whole region will rise and fall together compared to other regions and sent their talented individuals to pitch in. Unfortunately not enough people see it that way. They may be more concerned with creating more competitors for their own kids, certainly an issue in an economy that is seen as contracting in the face of competitors from around the world. For what ever reason political power from the suburbs prevented the state legislature from fixing a funding system that was declared unconstitutional several times by the Ohio Supreme Court for its dependence on local property taxes.

    Blaming Dayton’s teachers, their unions, board members and even administrators is an oversimplification. Most of these people mean well and try hard. Urban kids bring fewer resources from home to school and that needs to be made up. The public resources to fix it aren’t there. Other issues exist but pale before this one. Once you have sufficient resources, there are many issues about how to spend them wisely . Mike Bock and others question whether hierarchical, bureaucratic and otherwise inept systems can succeed in a highly personal and inspirational endeavor like education. There is also a question of how best to deal with the larger number of problem and disruptive children, as well as a number of cultural questions concerning poverty that schools are not equipped to solve. What we need is an effort from the entire society to shape up its weaker sectors. That has not been what we have been getting.

  9. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, you write, about improving Dayton City Schools, “We would need to make up for the social capital that is lacking in impoverished urban cores with things like smaller class sizes and a better teaching environment, to say nothing of salaries for teachers commensurate with those of other professionals whose work we claim to value, or say those of the mortgage industry professionals who brought us the sub prime meltdown.” And you write, “Urban kids bring fewer resources from home to school and that needs to be made up. The public resources to fix it aren’t there. Other issues exist but pale before this one. Once you have sufficient resources, there are many issues about how to spend them wisely .”

    In an April 2007 DDN article, “Dayton’s poverty rate means more spent for special programs,” Scott Elliott, reported, “Dayton last year spent about $13,767 per pupil while Lakota spent $8,049 per pupil.”

    One reason for a difference in spending is the fact that “Lakota is about the same size, but spends $23.5 million less on special ed than Dayton, where 1 in 5 receive aid.” That averages about $1500 more per student per year spent on special education programs. This data is a year old and with the cutbacks caused by the levy failure, I’m guessing the per pupil expense in Dayton now is less than the $13,767 quoted by Scott Elliott and would guess it to be, maybe, $12,000 or so per student.

    Whatever the per pupil expenditure in DPS actually is, it is a lot of money. Because this large expenditure has produced, overall, such disappointing results in DPS, any argument that advances the notion that the key to improving Dayton Schools is through even greater expenditures, to me, seems untenable. I agree with your comment that “We need to make up for the social capital that is lacking in impoverished urban cores,” but the per pupil expense in Dayton compared to other districts, like Lakota, indicates that DPS already spends $4,000 or more per student per year that other districts. Isn’t there a limit as to what is reasonable to ask voters to spend?

    I’m sure from the viewpoint of teachers and students, adversely impacted by recent Dayton cutbacks, more money seems definitely needed — money for the supplies, smaller classes, expanded curriculum, etc., that was lost because of cutbacks — I am sorry for the mess that the students and teachers are suffering from, and I agree with Stan, that, “Blaming Dayton’s teachers, their unions, board members and even administrators is an oversimplification.” But blaming the woes of the system on the public — for their failure to vote more money — is an oversimplification as well.

    In my view, DPS should strategize how, over time, it could be transformed from a bureaucratic school system to a free market system of schools and how free market principles could be applied to make this transformation. Such schools would still be under the authority of the Dayton Board of Education. I have a specific proposal in mind that soon I am going to write up for discussion.

    DPS and other urban schools are evidence of the fact that our standard school design is fatally flawed. What is not generally understood or appreciated is the fact that suburban public schools, where many of the children of financially successful families send their children, are as fatally flawed in their design and organizational structure as Dayton Public schools are flawed. In these suburban schools, however, the force of family and community is strong enough to see that their children meet state and college criteria. But the school design and the school program in these system are wrong and, overall, compared to their potential, these suburban schools are also very poorly functioning schools. I believe, because of the fatal flaws in its design, DPS can find only marginal improvement by continued allegiance to this design — regardless that large sums of additional money might be poured into the system.

    The fact that DSP is in obvious crisis provides an opportunity for leadership. The statistics of how much money DPS already spends per student and the statistics showing overall DPS’s lack of success make it tough to convince voters that DPS needs even more money. What is needed is a commitment to radically reform the system. What is needed is leadership that can envision a new DPS system and sell the hope of such a new system to the public. The public, I do not think, will support the notion the present system should be endlessly replicated. A new system needs to be envisioned and articulated as a means to gain new public support.

    Original Eric disagrees with Stan’s comment: “Other communities that do have a stronger economic and community citizen base have no reason to want to improve Dayton and many reasons not to,” but it is a comment that rings true to me. Eric says, about the indifference of those in the suburbs, “It’s ‘indifference’ only to the extent that talented individuals who can help have no incentive–prospect for success–commensurate with the effort which would be required.” A free market approach to reforming DPS could give the incentives that Eric sees as necessary.

    I agree with Rick, “The educational establishment lost its credibility.” The crisis in DPS, with the right leadership, should be a means for the educational establishment to provide the type of leadership and wisdom that would increase its credibility.

    We have two related topics, it seems, in discussion: Education and Democracy. Stan, you wrote, “Democracy requires a grounded, informed and responsible people able to understand problems and make decisions. It requires institutions that provide that framework. We seem to be headed in the opposite direction.” I agree. I wrote this post How Grassroots Dayton Can Build Democracy By Building Communitythat develops the idea that we need to create new communities where the elements needed for democracy can flourish. I want to expand on these ideas this week.

  10. Original Eric says:

    invest say a portion of the present military budget in improving the schools. We would need to make up for the social capital that is lacking in impoverished urban cores with things like …

    Been there, done that. Too little armor for humvees and soldiers. Schools still declining.

    Check out Leonard Pitts, We know what works — now let’s do it:

  11. T. Ruddick says:

    Original Eric:

    I’ve been closely acquainted with TQM (and its alphabet-soup successor, CQI) for quite a few years now. Those programs–as all other ‘magic bullet’ education reforms–are abysmal failures and generally a waste of time and money.

    If you had, for example, read “Management Fads in Higher Education”, you’d have understood why these programs are ill-advised and why Susan Zellman was ineffective. If you’d familiarize yourself with the haughty, isolationist, data-ignorant way that the state board of education does business, you’d have more of a clue.

    Simply put, the best thing that could happen for education in general is for every legislator to (a) fund it generously–the parents who pay $42,000 per year for tuition to toney private academies are proof that you get what you pay for, as are the rare successful charters (WEB Dubois academy, ISUS) which coincidentally are the ones who’ve managed to scrape up much more money per student. And (b) for the legislators then to reign in administrative bloat and insist on lean, mean operations. And (c) for the legislators then to SHUT UP and let the teachers do their jobs, with properly engaged academic administration.

    It would also help if the legislators would enact tort reform for the public schools, which need it far more than the irresponsible businesses which have already received protection. But perhaps I ask too much of them, wouldn’t want to overwhelm John Husted with too many tasks at once.

  12. Stan Hirtle says:

    The military budget is heavy on expensive stuff like bombs and aircraft, but skimps on armor and medical care for those who had inadequate armor. However the military budget is still enormous and unaffordable, particularly with regard to the War in Iraq. We could do a lot for schools, health care and infrastructure with what we are spending in Iraq.

    The statistics between the old and poverty ridden system in Dayton and the new and affluent suburban Lakota district are skewed by things like 1. the special needs budget, which Mike Bock notes, and which is extremely expensive per child. This is actually an area where Dayton does well and parents of a seriously disabled child may want them in Dayton. 2. Aging and long neglected infrastructure, decades older than its counterparts in Lakota 3. things like equipment and libraries are also older and long neglected in past Dayton budgets. Remember that buildings in Dayton were for a system that was much larger. This infrastructure can’t be shed and moved around. 4. Transportation costs. A free market keeps Dayton transporting kids, including private and charter school kids, wherever they want to go.

    “Isn’t there a limit as to what is reasonable to ask voters to spend?” This is the real question. How much is it reasonable to spend on the kids who get the least support at home, start out behind and in addition are from social groups that are not respected, African Americans, poor Appalachians and now Hispanics. How much political will is there to spend money on educating them. The welfare reform dynamic was to punish children for the failings of parents, and there remains a lot of that here. Only if people realize that we can not afford the results of an inadequate education system which saddles the whole region with a below average workforce and a school to prison pipeline, may they be willing to spend the money. Plus you get what you pay for. Spending an inadequate amount and getting an inadequate job does not mean that you should spend even less. The question is who pays and how. Impoverished communities, particularly those where people on fixed income are asked to pay real property taxes with income they don’t have, can not pay enough to meet the need. The whole community needs to invest its time and resources.

    Perhaps Mike Bock likes the free market approach so much because there might be more political will in the suburbs for supporting a “free market.” This may be the main argument because I see no reason to expect a free market to succeed in this area. There is just not enough profit to be made educating the poor. In order to create a profit incentive to do better, assuming people knew how. To create a profit incentive would take the very enormous increase in urban public school budgets that people are resisting.

    What we see now is what you can expect. Charter schools are small and underresourced, mostly mom and pop outfits started by nice people who want to help. At best they are just like their public counterparts and get about the same results. They may market to parents better but there is no reason for them to educate better. Some do much worse, as they have no learning curve nor margin for error. For profit chains do no better, as there is no money to squeeze out. Education is not something the free market is good at. We kind of see a free market in colleges, which compete in convenience, selectivity and cost, but college students do not include the large number of troubled kids that come to the public schools. Schools mostly succeed by being selective in who they admit and keep, but that just dumps the other kids on someone else and does not solve the overall problem.

    No Child Left Behind creates a club to beat up on urban schools with but no resources to help them succeed. Thus is a formula for highly publicized failure. That may be good politics for Republican party constituencies but it just guarantees the problem will not be solved and remain worse. And it pushes other schools that don’t need it into test score seeking and gaming the system, at the expense of thinking skills and things that aren’t on the test.

    Mike Bock’s other issue is that the high quality suburban schools that don’t have the urban problems and could be producing a more educated and courageous citizen, aren’t. This is true but is a different level of problem.

  13. Original Eric says:

    No Child Left Behind creates a club to beat up on urban schools with but no resources to help them succeed

    Flaws in NCLB (2001) were anticipated by Deming before an audience of superintendents in 1991. In that sense, NCLB demonstrates the ability of educators to resist or ignore best practices.

    See also:

  14. Stan Hirtle says:

    As to Original Eric’s first point, here is a take from the right wing American Prospect, now critical of No Child Left Behind.

    “But NCLB was flawed from the start. The 2001–2002 stampede ignored well-established statistical and management theories predicting perverse consequences for test-based accountability.
    One such consequence is goal distortion, the subject of extensive warnings in the economics and management literature about measuring any institution’s performance by quantitative indicators that reflect only some institutional goals. Management expert W. Edwards Deming urged businesses to “eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals” because they encourage short-, not long-term vision. Peter Drucker gave similar advice. Today, management consultants urge “balanced scorecards” using qualitative judgment, as well as financial indicators, to measure corporate success.

    Schools have many goals for students: basic math and reading skills but also critical thinking, citizenship, physical- and emotional-health habits, arts appreciation, self-discipline, responsibility, and conflict resolution. Schools threatened with sanctions for failure in only one goal will inevitably divert attention from others. One NCLB consequence has been less social studies, science, art, music, and physical education — particularly for low-income children, whose math and reading scores are lowest and for whose teachers the consequences of spending time on, say, history, rather than more math drill, are most severe. “Rothstein, Leaving “No Child Left Behind” Behind, . These conservatives seem to have abandoned the idea of Bush as the leader riding a federal white horse to a conservative promised land, and are now back to being more enamored of control by local school boards.

    The inside higher ed article has some decent points although it is about colleges rather than inner city high schools, and the dynamics are much different. Colleges are highly competitive collections of specialized fiefdoms, and this dominates the dynamic. The numbers that drive them are not standardized test results as what are measured in college rating magazines, and how well big time sports teams do.

    The article does point out the decline of public financial support and support from political leadership for colleges, as well as from the shadowy foundations who we sometimes hope can make up for what the political system will not do. Kk-12 suffers even more from this, particularly in urban school systems.

    The article also talks about why change is institutionally difficult. People prefer known problems to unknown ones. Plus change is not necessarily good. Things can get worse instead of better. Too often the baby gets thrown out with the bath water. Trying to anticipate change often reminds people of the failures of USSR type planned economies, while a whatever happens is good approach leads to Enron and the subprime mortgage debacle. Risk is dangerous to the livelihood of all who encounter it, and even those rewarded today are likely to get hammered tomorrow. CEOs may get golden parachutes for this reason but those lower down do not, and often protect themselves in bureaucratic ways. Even those who recognize dealing and making lemonade out of change is inevitable and necessary have not figured out how to make it fair and reasonably manageable for large numbers of people. However these generalities apply less to something as universal and personal as education.

    One inherent problem with the article is how a college can understand when its pieces are “underperforming” and knowing when they are “productive and creative.” This subjective decision may not be answerable for decades. Instead a point of view about it is likely to become entrenched in the institutional culture, and dominate the hiring and promotional choices which in turn control the institution’s identity. Of course it then resists changing the culture that defines it. This may happen in school systems as well as colleges. However urban schools get more flack than colleges do, in part because who is involved and in part because their failures to do more with less are so visible.

  15. Original Eric says:

    Hi Stan,

    Rothstein is a Progressive, accused of waiting for the European-style welfare state that will never come.

    When Dr. Deming spoke to educators in 1991, it was not obvious how accurate his predictions would be. Nonetheless, we didn’t take appropriate precautions. However, Rothstein has his own agenda and it is not fixing a broken system.

    I really appreciate the pointer to Rothstein nonetheless. Being able to argue that he doesn’t understand Deming even after 17 years… priceless!

  16. Mike Bock says:

    Dr. Ruddick, you write, “I’ve been closely acquainted with TQM (and its alphabet-soup successor, CQI) for quite a few years now. Those programs–as all other ‘magic bullet’ education reforms–are abysmal failures and generally a waste of time and money.”

    Your experience with TQM rings true to me, according to my own experience. The power of the system, of those entrenched in the system, to frustrate change or improvement is relentless and effective. There is a lot of “going through the motions,” in education where the whole point of activity is seemingly is to have meetings and write reports — not really to change anything. The whole point of a lot of activity in education is for public consumption. We want to be able to say, “Our district uses TQM,” if TQM is the trendy thing at the time.

    But the fact that TQM has failed to be applied in schools does not mean that the principles of TQM are false. If we could design a system from the ground up, so to speak, the principles of TQM could be powerfully applied to such a design.

    Stan, I started writing a long response to your comments and then decided to just make it a new post, In Education, Let’s Stop Trying To Improve a Horse and Buggy System

  17. T. Ruddick says:

    Mike, the problem with TQM (and ZBB, and MBO, and CQI, and ‘Excellence’, and MbWA, Six Sigma, etc. etc. etc., is that they are all hypothetical systems, applied unscientifically, and inevitably failing to deliver the wonderous outcomes projected by their proponents.

    What you’ve suggested here–that TQM has failed because it was not implemented properly–is precisely what Robert Birnbaum noted in “Management Fads in Higher Education”–EVERY one of these ‘reforms’ fails, and then its adherents blame the failure on incompetent implementation rather than the more logical conclusion that the system itself is flawed.

    Moreover, Birnbaum notes that every one of these systems seems to work in a few cases–and concludes that those were the institutions that were so good that anything they tried would have worked.

    I take my management inspiration from Hersey and Blanchard, who concluded that no single style or system of management worked optimally in any sitution. Rather, a manager ought to be flexible and should apply different levels of direction and supervision according to the abilities and attitudes of the workers. In the best situations, the manager ought to take a strictly hands-off approach!

    TQM does not permit such flexibility, and thus is going to lead to success in some cases, while wrecking morale and thus ruining productivity in others.

    I am hopeful that there won’t have to be too many more ‘silver bullet’ management systems that fail widely before the people who work in these areas come to that realization. Otherwise we’ll be doomed to keep repeating these mistakes ad infinitum.

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