To Transform Our System Of Education, We Must Redefine The Aim Of The System

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 ….

Dr. Ruddick, in reply to my last post, defended centralized bureaucratic systems and said, “The Canadian, French, and British central health care systems outperform ours and cost less at the same time.” That comment made me think. What I’ve realized is that any discussion about system design must start with the most important element of a system: its actual aim.

The European health care system is a government run monopoly. The American health care system is a different type of monopoly. The big difference between these two monopolies is the difference in the actual aims and purposes of the two systems. The European health system is accountable to the government to actually promote health and heal disease. Because it is bureaucratic and centrally controlled, no doubt, it has a lot of waste and inefficiency. But, what saves it is that at least the aim of the system is carefully controlled. The American health care system, on the other hand, is accountable to large corporations and the AMA. It is not surprising that, regardless of its inefficiencies, the European system outperforms ours by those measures having to do with public health.

The problem with the Trabant system was not so much its centralized control and bureaucratic processes, but rather, without market reasons to do otherwise, it pursued the wrong aim. I’m imagining its aim was to provide employment, to give plush jobs to communist bosses, to provide a stream of income to cronies — and it accomplished its aim quite well. If its aim had been to produce a quality automobile, certainly, over the years, the East German engineers would have figured out how. The Mercedes Company was a big complicated company, organized with centralized control and bureaucratic processes, but with many other auto companies to compete with, Mercedes had to focus the aim of its system on producing quality and customer satisfaction. Mercedes had to respond to the free market, the Trabant did not.

Can we envision an educational system whose actual aim is understanding and developing the human potential of children, of preparing students for authentic participation and leadership in a democracy? Can we imagine a system of education with an aim that would rival what the most wise parents want for their own children?

Suppose we start with that aim to guide us, with a lot of school property and equipment already paid for, and with a $8,000 budget per child per year. What would be the design of a system that could accomplish such an aim? This is a huge question that universities and think tanks should be addressing. I wrote a post, “Strickland Should Use Charter Schools To Help Fulfill His Promise: “Reform and Renew the System of Education Itself,” in which I urge Gov. Strickland to use charter school laws as a means to develop carefully designed school organizational structures and programs. (I haven’t heard back from the governor as yet.) To transform our system may take twenty years. But we need to stop simply replicating the present system.

If the system is to work, it seems clear that the role of teachers must be expanded and redefined. At the heart of education is the teacher / student relationship. The system needs to attract the most creative and most ambitious young people to become teaching professionals. A top teacher should have the expectation to earn at least three times what top teachers now earn (say, $200,000 per year). We have a system where architects and lawyers can ascend to the top of their profession, based on their accomplishments. It is an interesting question as to what an educational system would look like that would allow the most effective teachers to rise to the top. Such top teachers would be those teachers who could best help accomplish and advance the aim of the system: helping students understand and reach their potential. It is an interesting question as to what the characteristics of teachers most successful in accomplishing such aim would be, what the organizational structure would look like where such teachers could emerge, and what an educational program would look like that focused on accomplishing this aim.

The present traditional system strives for too little and applauds itself too much for the meager amount it does accomplish. As it is, based on its own tools of evaluation, the nine hours spent daily in school activity — including transportation and homework — is very wasteful and unproductive. If it’s all about test scores, there are much easier and much less expensive ways to educate than the way offered by traditional schools. Students who spend two or three hours in a concentrated computer assisted program at home easily can accomplish test scores that equal or surpass the scores of peers in the traditional system.

The future challenges of our democracy will require the best that humanity can offer, and will challenge the limits of human potential. Our present system of education is not up to the task before it. We need an educational system that will redefine its purpose. To transform our system of education so that its aim and resources became focused on developing the human potential of children would be a worthy and needed — and difficult to achieve — national goal.

Most everyone agrees that our education system needs transformation. A system is transformed when its actual purpose or aim is transformed, and when its structure and practices are aligned to achieve its purpose. A president who seeks to lead us to a transformed future must show us a way to transform our system of education. To transform our system of education, we must redefine the aim of the system. Obama’s comment about education, if taken seriously, may be a good start.

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