To Bring Excellence To Public Education We Must First Engineer A Better System

On the cover of Frederick Hess’s new book “Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling,” is an open green field. Hess’s theme is that we must transform the system of education and that the first step is to clear out the bramble and debris and create green space for new development.

Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about transforming American education. The “Nation at Risk” report 27 years ago got the ball rolling by famously declaring, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

In 1994, “Goals 2000,” was funded with $105 million and established a list of what turned out to be fantasy ideas like, “By the year 2000, students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement,” and, “The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.”

The NCLB law, signed in Hamilton, Ohio, by George W. Bush, in 2002, had Ted Kennedy and John Boehner in attendance

The “No Child Left Behind” Act, a bipartisan idea that brought Ted Kennedy, George W Bush and John Boehner to Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio for its signing on Jan. 8, 2002, objectified goals into a plan for “standards-based education.” NCLB resulted in a maze of tests and reports that have greatly impacted how teachers and schools operate.

But, arguably, the net result of this 30 years of alarm, goal setting, increased expenditures, testing mania and talk of reform, has simply been that the rising tide of the gray goo of mediocrity in American education has risen even further. It’s nice that, because of this effort, more schools have moved from the truly awful to the barely mediocre, but what seems missing is any vision of authentic excellence.

Missing from Hess’s new book is indication of how Hess might define excellence.

According to Ohio’s rating system, a school is “excellent” if 75% of students in a school can show minimum competence on machine scored objective tests. It is shameful, in my judgment, that professional educators and community leaders, who certainly know better, can agree to such a ridiculous standard of educational “excellence.”

Our challenge at every level of education is to create excellence. And, as I’ve reported about my experience interviewing the legendary W. Edwards Deming, the key question, I believe, we must ask and answer is, “By What Method?”

Deming would no doubt agree with the basic premise of Hess’s book — that what is needed in education is systemic reform. He would agree with Hess that we must clear the bramble and debris and create a green space upon which to make a new system. But, Hess is lacking the answer that is needed: “By what method?”

Hess advocates that entrepreneurs need green space to have opportunity to build. He writes, “Rather than our repeated efforts to reinvent the wheel in district after district … we may fare better by focusing on how we might allow and encourage problem solvers to take their services to a wealth of communities and kids.”

The Hess vision is that states and districts should create opportunities so that entrepreneurs — like those who founded Apple, Amazon, eBay, or Pixar — might have access to the huge educational market. Hess writes, “In lieu of efforts to reform each of the country’s 15,000 school districts, a single entrepreneurial venture might dramatically improve … hundreds or thousands of districts.”

Of course, entrepreneurs already have access to the American market — textbook publishers, software designers, computer manufacturers, cheapest card machine, etc — but Hess is suggesting much more. His vision, evidently, is that American business should have the opportunity to sell comprehensive programs to districts — that would supplant current structures and current union rules. He mentions charter schools, such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) or Edison, and it appears he would like to see more districts simply contracting with the entrepreneurs who control such ventures.

Hess is suggesting a radical solution for American education, and I agree that radical solutions are called for. I agree, we need to create green space. But creating opportunity for entrepreneurs, by itself, is not nearly enough.  Hess’s idea that districts create green space is a first step. But then what?

The record is clear in Ohio, that creating green space for entrepreneurs to start charter schools did not result in excellence. At best, it resulted in improving the educational experience of some students from awful to mediocre. We need a system that will move education to authentic excellence, not simply to a good grade doled out by a government bureaucracy.

Hess says that educational reform should be guided by the philosophy of a gardener. He quotes Nobel Prize winner Friedrich August von Hayek that because our knowledge is inadequate, we should not seek to be craftsmen, but rather, we should, “promote growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.”

Hess writes, “We would all do well to take Friedrich von Hayek’s advice and ask leaders to think more like gardeners and less like engineers. What can they do to reduce obstacles; foster smart private and public quality control; and promote talent, capital and networks?”

Yes, but here is the puzzle: Reducing obstacles, promoting talent, etc., is not easy. It is certainly not simply a matter of wishful thinking. Success requires planning. It requires engineering. It requires structure. Successful gardening is the result of a plan, the result of knowledge, the result of structure. It doesn’t just happen by itself.

Hess fails to bring to the discussion this important truth: Without structure, there can be no freedom. Hess wants entrepreneurs to have freedom in American education, but he shows no system design where that freedom will be meaningful or productive. He fails to answer Deming’s question: “By what method?”

Deming’s main idea is that quality, overwhelmingly (85%), can be attributed to organizational and systemic structure. Removing obstacles, creating green space, is not enough. We need to engineer a system that will support and advance quality, a system that will advance teacher professionalism, a system in which a gardener might have a chance for success, a system where responsible entrepreneurship can flourish. Hess, or someone, needs to take the next step and show what that system might be. I like the notion that successful systems promote, encourage, and empower natural growth, as if by the hand of a thoughtful gardener.  But a successfully designed system requires thoughtful and knowledgeable engineering.  My premise: To Bring Excellence To Public Education We Must First Engineer A Better System.

I’m going to give my best shot at describing such a system in my soon to be written book: “Public Education In Kettering, Ohio In The Year 2022”

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10 Responses to To Bring Excellence To Public Education We Must First Engineer A Better System

  1. Eric says:


    Perhaps you could prioritize and distill your comments into an education brief for Democratic candidates.

    “Democratic candidates for public office don’t listen to the vital information I share on public education” isn’t a favorable endorsement of either the candidate or this blog.

  2. Mike Bock says:


    My goal is to put together the book I keep referring to — and hopefully distill an outlook and a plan that will help the community where I live, Kettering, to move toward transforming its system of public education. To reform public education in Kettering, or any community, what is needed is a grassroots movement. Such a grassroots movement has no chance for success unless it is non-partisan.

    I’m studying how to put together a community program that will create material for my book. The idea is to create, say, a ten week program this autumn where the community would be invited to each week to attend and participate. The thought is to create a schedule of topics and guest speakers and a format of Q/A and discussion that would align with the topics I have in mind for the book. If I can actually get a schedule of such programs together, I hope you will consider attending. I am hoping to find a way that the sessions can be broadcast live on the inter-net and shown here on DaytonOS and, by so doing, invite an on-line discussion as well. The thought is that there can be on-going discussions about the specific topics via comments on this web-site.

    In the long term, transformation of Kettering Schools can only happen via a democratic process by the action of elected school board members. So this grassroots process would seek to gain either support from current board members or new board members who would be elected on a platform promising to support a specific plan of transformation.

    The idea that a community can actually exert local control of its system of public education, I believe, is an idea whose time has come, again, and an idea well past due to be put to the front of the discussion about improving public education. It is an idea that is ideal for the focus of a grassroots movement, because transforming a community’s system of public education is a non-partisan idea. I’m going to commit some time and effort to create a study group, and see what happens — I believe that Kettering is an ideal community for such an effort to be successful.

  3. Eric says:

    Anyone who cares about Kettering Schools will be preoccupied from now to November getting a levy passed despite Gov. Strickland’s implication that Kettering pays excessive salaries to teachers while underserving schoolchildren.

    I believe that Kettering is an ideal community for
    … using Kettering Foundation materials, perhaps?

  4. Mike Bock says:

    Eric, please explain what Gov. Strickland said that you are referring to — “that Kettering pays excessive salaries to teachers while underserving schoolchildren” — because I’ve not heard anything like that.

    It is wrong to assume that Kettering citizens who might vote against a proposed school levy do so because they do not care about public education in Kettering, and, it is wrong to assume that most people who support levies will dedicate so much time in doing so they will be unable to participate in a study group.

    If you wait for a “best” time to do something, you might wait forever. I’m thinking that, in fact, planning a study group to form and work during a time that coincides with a levy campaign might have some advantages. The time when the public is, once again, being asked to agree to raise taxes to support their local schools might be an ideal time to engage people in an in-depth discussion about the future of their local schools.

  5. Bryan says:

    Sure a better system would be great, but what happens at the end of each day when students exit that system and go home? How much impact can a better system have when students go home to a family that doesn’t believe education is important?

    What can be done to create and foster a community parenting culture that places a strong value on education?

  6. Mike Bock says:

    Bryan, you point out that there are many dimensions to public education to consider, besides what happens in the school buildings each year, for 183 school days. Creating a system of “Public Education,” optimally, must include much more than creating a system simply of K-12 education. Your questions need to be addressed and the ambitious title for my book — “Public Education In Kettering, Ohio In The Year 2022” — sets out a big goal to attempt an answer.

    The idea is that any plan for the transformation needed in public education will take years to implement and many more years to bring to fruition. It will require a grassroots movement inspired by a shared vision. This is a tall order, but I believe Kettering is a community in which there is a reasonable chance for success.

    You ask, “How much impact can a better system have when students go home to a family that doesn’t believe education is important?” And, the answer, I believe, is a transformed system can have a transforming impact. I’m basing my belief on W. Edwards Deming’s assertion that system organizational structure accounts for 85% of quality. There is a lot of discouragement concerning whether public education can ever be substantially improved. But, when we implement changes in such things as teacher quality or curriculum or length of school day, etc., we are only impacting, only 15% of quality issues and our best efforts, at best, result in only marginal improvement. We’ve not touched the 85% where there is the opportunity for the biggest impact. A plan for transformation must focus on this 85%.

    Transformation requires the hard work of rethinking the entire system. Transformation will require challenging the comfort level of most everyone who is comfortable with the current system. Big change will require grassroots support, a compelling plan, and patience. It will never happen within the current dynamic. We need a new dynamic — one based on democratic processes and one based on unlocking the creative potential of authentic local control.

    I’m setting the timing for 13 years in the future — the length of one K-12 cycle — maybe, it will be shorter or, more likely, longer. Small victories will bring about more rapid change, and if transformation has any chance we will need to see positive change in the short run of only 2 or 3 years. We need time for the current system to substantially wither away and for new system to replace it. Such change will require a long view and a stable community. We need to stop the practice of the last 50 years of simply continually replicating the current failed system.

  7. Eric says:

    Transformation requires the hard work of rethinking the entire system

    So how would you grade the NEA/OEA Transformational Dialogue on Public Education? Did they (with First Lady Frances Strickland) “get the jobs done?”

  8. oldprof says:

    Mike: after 50 years of education reform-that-didn’t-work, in fact reform-that-made-things-worse, here’s a modest proposal.

    Everyone shuts up.

    Well, not everyone. But let’s limit the opinion pieces from people who know nothing about education and who want to impose their favorite paradigm.

    Hess has nothing new to say. Let’s operate education like business! Let’s make it for-profit! Just like BP, Lehman Brothers, Enron, Andersen, Worldcom.

    Hess must know nothing about business, because if he did he’d start by recognizing this fact: over 50% of businesses fail within the first five years of operation, and it’s a safe bet that 80% of today’s top ten companies on the Fortune list will have fallen far lower in 30 years.

    Business in a free market is not stable.

    Is instability good for education? No. And privatizing education will in fact destabilize it. Look at the students whose parents (we foolishly invested them with the notion that they knew how to best educate their children–despite the widespread neglect and abuse of children) put them in charter schools which then closed–having neglected to educate those children–sometimes in mid-term.

    The fact is that the top American universities from 100 years ago are STILL ranked as the top American universities. No business has ever maintained such a level of quality.

    Here’s the bottom line, the unescapable but inconvenient truth. The only thing a school can do to promote education is to get a competent teacher in front of a reasonable-sized class and provide proper supplies. All of the alphabet soup of “reforms” amount to a scam to sell books by education “experts” who, frankly, should not be authorized to educate a dog.

    If you want to fix American education, roll back to 1955 when we were approaching 100% literacy. Fund the schools generously and then leave them alone–except perhaps to ride herd on the administration to prevent it from overpopulating. And tell Arne Duncan and Hess and John Husted to shut the hell up. The alternative is to keep listening to the same amateurs and allowing the same reforms while expecting different results.

  9. Stan Hirtle says:

    Does Deming’s view work best dealing with factories that make cars and similar things and less well with education, which is based on human realtionships, many of which occur outside of school but in the student’s home and cultural community?

  10. Mike Bock says:

    Eric, I’ve not heard an NEA/OEA dialogue on transforming public education.

    Though I believe that Gov. Strickland has good intentions, and, I believe he actually hoped for much more, it appears that his education plan for Ohio will not transform the system, but instead, will add more layers of bureaucracy, requirements, and expense to the present system. Strickland’s efforts in education should reminds us, again, that the forces of inertia are so embedded in the political power structure that top-down efforts to change the system inevitably are frustrated. There is a “this too will pass” passive resistance attitude within the educational establishment that remains — though governors come and go, as do reform minded school superintendents, and reform plans.

    My own conclusion is that the energy needed for authentic reform — leading to a transformed system — must be the result of grassroots community efforts.

    Oldprof, your statement, that,“The only thing a school can do to promote education is to get a competent teacher in front of a reasonable-sized class and provide proper supplies,” raises good questions. It implies that education is defined as that which happens in a classroom and that a teacher is one who can control the class successfully and deliver a curriculum. This is a 1955 definition of schooling, but, was this model ever really good enough? But, here in 2010 it seems very out of date. This model of schooling seems a long way from satisfying Dewey’s standard — that every child in a community should benefit from an education that the wisest parent in a community would want for their own child.

    Your comment seems to point out that, certainly, every wise parent wants their children to benefit from the influence and effort of great teachers. But, here is the system design question: If we believe that great teachers are the key to education, then what is the system that would allow great teachers to emerge and to flourish? In 1955, many of those great teachers were women who went into education because there were no other professional opportunities and in 1955, there was a more nonchalant attitude to the administration of teachers and, in 1955, teachers had more professional discretion in the classroom and more opportunity for creativity than what now exists in our current test driven schools. But, in 1955 teachers were much more poorly paid than today, and teachers’ associations were professional societies, not unions. There was no collective bargaining, etc. We’re never going back to those structures. We need to have the insight to use the reality we find in 2010 to design new systems of education. The good news is that we have much greater promise of making a system that will develop human potential beyond what would have been possible in 1955.

    Stan, yes, Deming’s life work was in industry — such as Ford — and in Japan there is now the Deming Prize for quality. But he was very interested in education, particularly in his later years. His daughter, I believe, was a public school teacher. His basic insights concerning systems, he indicated, applied to all systems, including systems of education.

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